If you’re going to invest in new product development, you want to be sure that other businesses can’t simply copy your ideas. Registering a patent for your invention can be an extremely powerful way of protecting it.
You may be able to protect an invention simply by treating it as confidential information and relying on copyright law to protect any documentation or other copyright ‘works’ associated with it. However, patenting may be a better way to protect a new and inventive product or process that has an industrial use.
Critically, you will not be able to get a patent if the invention has already been publicly disclosed and so is no longer new. If you need to disclose your invention – for example, to potential investors – you must ensure that you are protected by a suitable non-disclosure agreement. This prevents your disclosure from constituting publicly available ‘prior art’ that could be taken into account when considering whether your invention is new.
In the UK, patent applications are made to the Intellectual Property Office which acts as the patent office. If granted, a patent gives you a 20-year monopoly on the manufacture, use, sale or import of the invention.
To be eligible for a patent, the differences between your invention and existing inventions must not be obvious to an ‘unimaginative but skilled person’ who has common general knowledge in that area. The application process includes a patent search to check whether other patents already exist that may have a bearing on your patent.
Patent applications can be complex. You should take advice from a patent attorney who can help prepare your application. By using a patent agent, you reduce the risk that a poorly-drafted application will limit the scope of the protection you get.
A patent application can take several years and cost several thousand pounds (including fees for advice). You should be sure that your invention is commercially viable before you apply.
If you want to be able to exploit your invention overseas, you will need to apply for additional patent protection. For example, you can apply for a European patent or for other international patent protection. Your patent lawyer can advise you on the application procedures and costs.
As with other forms of intellectual property, you do not have to use a patent directly yourself. Many inventors prefer to licence or assign their patents to larger businesses that already have the manufacturing and marketing muscle needed to make the most of an invention. Larger businesses are also in a better position to detect any patent infringements and take action.