Government granted patents give inventors the right to go to court to prevent others from making, using or selling the invention without the permission of the inventor. Patents are intended to protect an invention providing the idea has not been disclosed in advance.

The key reason for filing a patent application is that you believe you have invented something that might have commercial value. You may sell the patent, licence others to exploit it, or exploit the invention yourself.

Patents generally cover products or processes that possess or contain new or technical aspects. The majority of patents are for incremental improvements to existing inventions.

To qualify the UK Patent Office states that a patentable invention must be:

Like trademarks, a patent is granted nationally as a statutory monopoly for a specified period of time – typically 20 years from the filing date.

Software not patented in the UK

Software for computers is declared as not being an invention and is protected instead by copyright. However if there is a “technical effect” the software may be protected by patent.

Filing for a patent

The first step towards filing a patent application begins with filing a request for a patent (called a Specification) at the Patent Office. This gives the applicant one year's grace from the date of application. During this year it is advisable that the inventor seek to discover whether the invention can be made commercially successful.

Note that filing an application early can be vital but if you file too early and make changes to your invention you may have to re-file your application.

Applying for patents in other countries

Patents are territorial rights, therefore a separate application is necessary in each country and costs vary from country to country.

Patents in the UK are governed by the Patents Act 1977 and awarded by the UK Patent Office.

However a UK patent can also be granted via application made under the European Patent Convention (EPC) and filed at the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich.

Under the EPC it is possible to make a single application to any of the 18 European countries covered. This avoids the need to simultaneously file an application in a number of countries. While this can save money at the outset, the fees of all the countries selected by the applicant will have to be paid.

Under the Paris Convention, a first home filing starts a priority period of 12 months. Any subsequent application filed in another convention country within this first year is deemed to enjoy the filing date of the first application.

The application process

By the end of the initial 12 months, a formal application is required. As patent law and the procedures are complex, the services of a registered or chartered patent agent may prove helpful. The language used to describe the invention is often not technical but legal as the specification may need to be read and interpreted by lawyers in court! Wording should be accurate but not overly restrictive.

Before a patent is granted, and when assessing the novelty of the invention, the Patent Office will undertake a search of previous patent specifications.

Eighteen months after the application is filed the Patent Office publishes the application papers thereby enabling any interested parties to see the details of the invention.

Six months after the publication a further fee must be paid for a more technical examination of the application. A Patent Office Examiner then makes a decision.

The time taken to apply for a patent should take no longer than four and a half years, and some applications can be processed more quickly.