Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What is a Patent? Why might I want one? How do I get one?

Intellectual Property Office       Photo courtesy of the IPO

Jane Lambert

What is a Patent?

A patent is a monopoly of a new invention. The word invention is not defined by statute but it would seem to be either a new product or a new process.

If the invention is a product the monopoly is the exclusive right to manufacture, dispose or offer to dispose of, use import or keep the patented product. If the invention is a process the monopoly is the exclusive right to use the patented process including the disposal, offer to dispose of, use, importation or keeping of any product obtained directly by that process.

If anyone other than the owner of the patent ("the patentee") does any of those things without the licence (that is to say permission or consent) of the patentee, he or she is said to infringe the patent. Patentees can sue infringers for injunctions (orders of a judge not to infringe the patent on pain of imprisonment or fine for disobedience), damages (compensation) for the infringement or other remedies in the civil courts.

Why might I want a Patent?

If you have spent a lot of time or money on research and development you will probably want to get at least some of that back and if possible to make a little bit extra for your trouble. The problem is that we live in a free market and if your product or goods made by your process are in demand you can be pretty sure that someone will want to compete with you.

There are some things that you can do to protect yourself from such competition even without a patent. For instance, you can keep some vital information on making the product secret and there are laws in some countries including the UK that automatically prevent copying of designs. But if your product can be reverse engineered or if a similar product can be made without copying your design the only way you can prevent
such competition is by seeking a patent.

Without a patent it may be difficult to find investment, loans or other help in developing and marketing your invention. One of the first questions the dragons ask on Dragons Den is about intellectual property (see "What is IP? Why do Folk want it? How do they get it? How to learn more?" 20 Aug 2013).

Even if you do not want to make and sell your invention there may be somebody else in the world who does so it may be worth patenting an invention with a view to selling the patent or granting a licence under it.

But a word of warning! A patent is no lottery ticket. It is  worth something only if it helps you or some other person make money from it. And people will make money from a patent only if folk want to buy or use the invention and the patent is drafted sufficiently tightly to prevent others from making or using the invention.

Where do I get a Patent?

Patents are granted by national governments for individual countries or territories or groups of countries or territories. There us as yet no such thing as a world patent or even a European Union patent though there may soon be a patent for some but not all the member states of the EU which will be known as a unitary patent.

The agency that grants a patent is known as an intellectual property office or patent office. In the UK that is the Intellectual Property Office ("IPO") in Newport, A picture of the IPO appears above. The IPO also grants trade marks and registered designs for the UK and a few dependent territories.

The British government is party to an agreement with a number of other European countries to establish a European Patent Office ("EPO") in Munich and a number of other cities to examine applications for, and grant patents on behalf of, the contracting parties including the UK. Patents granted by the EPO are known as European patents and a European patent that applies to the UK is a European patent (UK).  European patents (UK) are treated for all intents and purposes as though they were patents granted by the IPO. The proposed unitary patent mentioned above will be a European patent for most but not all of the member states of the EU.

If you want a patent for a country outside Europe you need to apply to the patent office for the country or group of countries concerned. And you have got to make your application quickly because it you hang around your invention ceases to be new.  At one time inventors had to apply to every patent office in the world at more or less the same time which cost a lot of money and required a lot of work. Life was made somewhat easier by the Paris Convention which gave inventors a year from their first application to apply for patents in more than one country. It has been made easier again by the Patent Co-operation Treaty which allows you to apply to many countries simultaneously from the same application. There are some basic requirements that all countries demand such as novelty, inventiveness and utility. Your invention is examined for those qualities on behalf of all patent offices at the same time. If your invention passes that test the application is sent to individual patent offices to see whether your invention satisfies any further requirements under their local laws. If it does you get a patent for that country.

How do I get a Patent?

Requirements vary from country to country but all countries require inventors to submit a document known as a specification as part of the application to the relevant intellectual property or patent office.

The specification must include a description of the invention and a series of numbered paragraphs called claims.

The description normally identifies the problem that the invention seeks to resolve and often mentions previous attempts to resolve the problem. It then states how the invention addresses the issue and explains how to make or use the invention. That is very important because the inventor makes a deal with the public. In exchange for the monopoly of the invention the inventor must explain precisely how a person with the relevant skill and knowledge can make or use the invention. If the inventor fails to do that the patent is invalid and the monopoly may be revoked.

The claims set out the extent of the monopoly. They list the essential components of the invention known as features or integers. These also have to be drawn up carefully. If a claim is drafted too wide in that the inventor claims features to which he or she is not entitled that claim may be revoked. If the claim is too narrow a competitor will simply make something very like the invention which performs in very much same way.  The reason why claims are numbered is that the inventor sets out the monopoly in the widest terms that he or she can get away with in the first claim and then narrows it down in subsequent claims. A patent is said to have been infringed when a product that has the features of at least one claim is made, sold, offered for sale, imported, kept or used or a process with one of the features is used.

Once the application is filed the patent office examines the invention to see whether it really is new having regard to everything that has been invented or made known before ("the prior art"), whether the invention involves an inventive step or obvious when considering the prior art, whether it is useful and whether it satisfies other requirements of local law. A problem that often arises in the UK and other European countries is that computer programs as such cannot be patented whereas in the USA and many other countries they can. Often there is a debate as to whether a software implemented invention is just another computer program or whether it is an invention that resolves a technical problem. If all those tests are satisfied, then the patent is granted. If not the application may be rejected.

Can I apply for a patent myself?

Er y-e-e-e-e-e-s but I wouldn't recommend it. Applying for a patent is a tricky business and there is so much that can go wrong. It is much better to consult a patent attorney (also known as "patent agents"). They can get the specification right first time and if there is a problem with the application they can often resolve it in correspondence. If the examiner won't budge an attorney can represent you on appeal to a tribunal which in the UK IPO is an independent official known as "a hearing officer" who represents the Comptroller or chief executive of the IPO.

Those services come at a cost which can be a bit daunting if you are a new business. It is worth remembering that it takes a long time to train a patent attorney. Most have degrees in natural sciences, engineering or technology and many have doctorates in one of those subjects too. After they finish their university education they have to study intellectual property law and patent office practice and procedure and undergo a period of on the job training before they are in a position to draft patent specifications and navigate them through the intellectual property office.

Patent attorneys in this country belong to the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys ("CIPA") and are regulated by the IP Regulation Board ("IPReg"). There are similar bodies in other countries.

Where can I get more information?

A good starting point for general information is the Business and IP Centre of the British Library. They have a lot of materials including information on patenting, a good website, Linkedin group and Facebook page and they run workshops and seminars on IP including patents and provide other services. Some of those services are also available at Portsmouth and Southampton Central Libraries,

If you want to compare notes with other inventors you could attend a meeting of an inventors' club. There are three in London (Croydon, Kingston and the University of East London) and at least one (the Wessex Round Table of Inventors) in Southampton.

If you have a specific problem you could attend a patent clinic where you can meet a patent attorney, lawyer or other professional. We run patent clinics at Middlesex University on the last Thursday or every month and others are operated by CIPA and Ideas21. If you want an appointment at our clinic or discuss any other aspect of our article please call me on 020 7404 5252 or send me a message through my contact form, FacebookG+, Linkedin, twitter or xing.

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