What are patents and how do I get one?

If you’ve designed a new product or process that you believe is unique you may want to protect your invention by taking out a patent. But what exactly is a patent, what level of protection does it offer, and how easy is it to apply for one?

Does your invention already exist?

Before you waste any time and money filing for a patent make sure that what you’ve invented doesn’t already exist. Most patent applications (1 in 20) are rejected usually because a similar invention has already been patented somewhere in the world. You can pay an intellectual property (IP) professional or patent attorney to search for you or start by searching the internet and the government’s databases of published patents yourself. To be thorough, you should also check the relevant trade catalogues.

Patent criteria

To qualify for a patent your invention must obviously be new, which means it must not already be in the public domain on the date – known as the ‘priority date’ – you apply for a patent. Most patents are filed for some kind of mechanical device or component, or a unique process that is accepted as one that goes beyond any existing technologies. Your invention must be truly inventive and not just a modification; it must also be capable of some kind of application. If granted, the patent will help to prevent the function and technical features of your invention being copied or commercially exploited by another party.

How to apply for a patent

An IP advisor can prepare your patent application for you; if you do it yourself, you’ll have to submit your application to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), in the UK. This is for UK territorial rights only; if you want to file a patent application for other countries, you can apply through the IPO (see below). Your patent application should include a full description of your invention, with drawings, and a summary of the unique technical features of your invention. You’ll also have to provide a legal statement that defines your device, component or process by stating its distinctive technical aspects.


What happens now?

Being granted a patent isn’t quick and can take up to five years. Once you file your application and the appropriate fee is paid, you must request a formal search. An examiner will check to see your application meets all the necessary requirements and then search all published patents to decide whether or not your invention doesn’t already exist. All being well, the IPO will publish the patent application within 18 months of the filing date. After publication, a further examination has to be requested before your patent is granted.

How do I protect my IP abroad?

While your UK-granted patent can help prevent others exploiting your invention or intellectual property rights in this country, it has no influence abroad. To obtain a European-wide patent, which protects your patent in over 30 countries, you can apply through the IPO or directly to the European Patent Office (EPO). The IPO also processes applications for other countries.

How do I enforce my patent?

If you think someone is using your patent or exploiting your intellectual property in some way, it’s basically up to you to try and sort it out as the IPO does not take enforcement action. You could start by writing them a letter – or get a lawyer to do this – advising them they are infringing your patent and asking them to stop. The next step is to initiate court proceedings to get an injunction to stop them and possibly compensate you for any losses you have sustained in the meantime. In any case, you should always seek legal advice to help you resolve a patent dispute.

Can I licence others to use my invention?

Granting a licence to others to use your invention is a way of maximising the commercial potential of your invention, but it’s important you specify what the licence is for exactly. Get professional help to draw up the agreement which states the duration of the licence, how it’s to be used and what royalties or fees are payable. It should also specify in which country or areas the licensee is able to use your invention. If you sell the patent to someone else, all the rights will pass to the purchaser.

How long does my patent last?

A patent lasts 20 years from the date it is issued, subject to some renewal requirements, including the payment of an annual renewal fee.

What else do I need to know?

The government website puts the cost of applying for a patent at around £4,000, plus there’s the annual fee to consider. It’s worth noting that other types of protection, such as design rights, trademarks, and non-disclosure agreements, may be a more appropriate – and cheaper – solution, although this will depend on your invention. See here for more information.

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