A good idea is every bit as valuable as a piece of machinery but knowing how to protect it can be much harder. One of the most common ways is to take out a patent.
A patent allows you to stop other people from making, using or selling your invention without your permission. It covers a set period of time - usually up to 20 years in the UK - and applies in certain parts of the world. Once a patent is granted it can be bought, sold, or hired like any other asset. You can license other people to use your invention - which can be a valuable source of income.
You might consider applying for a patent if you’ve invented:
Does my invention qualify?
To qualify for a patent an invention must be capable of being made or used in some kind of industry. You can’t patent an idea or theory, a discovery, a work of art or a computer program - although there are other ways of protecting them.
An invention must be new and it is vital that you don’t make your invention public before applying for a patent. Be careful not to reveal it by mistake - for example by showing a picture of it in a brochure or annual report, giving a demonstration, chatting about it, writing an article or mentioning it in an advert. If you’re working with someone else to develop it you may need to ask them to sign a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.
Your invention must not infringe someone else’s patent and must include an inventive step that wouldn’t be obvious to someone working in the field.
Is it worth applying for a patent?
Before you apply for a patent carry out some market research to assess whether the invention has the growth potential to make an application worthwhile. A patent can make sense if you want to buy a set period of time when your rivals won’t be able to use your invention. But applying for a patent also means you have to reveal some technical information that you might rather keep secret.
The onus is on you to defend your patent and to take someone to court if necessary. Sometimes all you need to do is to send a carefully worded letter: the business may be unaware of the patent or stop once they know they’ve been found out.
Applying for a patent is time-consuming and can be costly. Making mistakes might mean you’re not properly covered or have to repeat the process of application. It’s usually best to seek professional advice from a registered patent agent or solicitor. (See The Chartered Institute of Patent Agents’ website).
How to apply for a patent
The UK Intellectual Property Office (formally The Patent Office) website gives full details of how to apply in the UK and allows you to apply on-line.
Prepare a patent specification which gives a full description of your invention and how it works. You can’t make changes once you’ve filed your application so it’s vital that you include all the relevant details. It can be useful to submit drawings as part of the claim. You must submit two copies of your specification, together with Patents Form 1/77 Request for Grant of a Patent. You must also pay a £130 fee for a search to check that there is no existing patent on your invention.
You then have 12 months in which to:
If everything goes smoothly the UK Intellectual Property Office will publish your application and you must pay for them to carry out a “substantive examination”. The application will be published again before - if successful - it is granted.
In the meantime you can sometimes put rivals off by printing “patent pending” on products using the invention or in adverts for the product.
UK Intellectual Property Office www.patent.gov.uk/
The Chartered Institute of Patent Agents www.cipa.org.uk
Business Link www.businesslink.gov.uk
Intellectual Property Institute www.ip-institute.org.uk