A patent is the right to the exclusive use of an invention, protected by law, for up to 20 years. Like any other business commodity, you can buy, sell, hire or license a patent.
A patent is granted by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) as your intellectual property, and can be enforced in law courts to stop other people exploiting it without your permission. The application process for patenting your invention means that you describe it to the public in a written document, which details what it is and how it works.
Some things cannot be patented. It is crucial that you keep details of your invention to yourself until you have the patent, which means that you cannot demonstrate how it works, advertise it or publish articles about it beforehand. To qualify for the grant of a patent, an invention has to be new, involve an inventive step, be capable of industrial application, and must not fall into an “excluded” category which includes literary works, scientific theories and methods for doing business.
Do you need a patent?
The patent system is Britain’s best kept business secret – but is it one you need to find out about? Experts point out that the long and tortuous route of patenting your business idea could give you the edge on your competitors and make your fortune – or it could be a complete waste of time and money.
The patent system can be difficult to navigate for the newcomer, according to the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA), who recommend seeking professional advice. You can find details of all the UK's chartered patent attorneys on the Institute's website (www.cipa.org.uk). But when it works well, the system is fantastic as it was for Ron Hickman, who invented the Black & Decker Workmate.
As a DIY enthusiast, Hickman dreamt up his Workmate when he accidentally sawed through the leg of a dining room chair he was using as a workstation. He drew up designs for a portable workbench and patented the idea, selling his invention by mail order. When he had sold 14,000, Black & Decker offered him a licensing deal which it is said earned him over £1 for each one sold. They sold 25 million worldwide.
Hickman did everything right. He had a good patent attorney, got a patent, and went on to fight infringement actions around the world. Some people argue that the patent system is a waste of time because it’s so easy to design around it, but that’s what happens when people draw up their own applications and claims. If you get it right, the patent system is wonderful. That is of course providing your invention is something for which there is a demand.
At its best, a patent gives inventors time to develop their invention commercially and make a profit from it, encouraging other innovators and driving British business forward. Without the patent system, major companies would not be able to pour research resources into developing new drugs, since they would not be assured of profiting from their years of work.
Patent specifications set out the full technical details of how an invention works. Patents can also provide useful commercial information which gives an insight into what new markets your competitors are developing, or even which countries they see as providing their main markets. Whether you want to protect your own invention, or just obtain information on what is already available and what competitors are doing, the patent system is invaluable to business.
Patent search services
Whether you are applying for a patent, or merely seeking useful market information about what has already been patented, your competitors and their expanding markets, you can use the IPO's patent search service. The IPO now offers searches within a particular area of technology, by company or individual name, and searches for possible infringements of patents still in force. Using a search in the early stages can help you obtain the best possible protection for your invention. It can also help you draw up the best possible patent application. It could avoid duplication of research when someone else’s results have already been published, could help with technical problems, and can identify new processes to enhance performance.