Business management

Protecting patents: the basics

Protecting inventions can be complex, but if they’re left unprotected, theft of your intellectual property can be even costlier in the long run. Here’s our guide to help you make sense of the world of patents.

Protecting intellectual property (IP) can help to create value in a business, so it’s important to have an IP strategy and be up to scratch on the legal side of things to avoid making mistakes.

Patents shouldn’t only be a concern for companies and start-ups in their early stages. Even if you’ve been going five or 10 years, and whether you employ 150 staff or have 250 or more employees, if you’re creating then you’ll need to be continuously thinking about IP and how you can protect yourself from imitation and would-be copycats.

In a survey on IP awareness published by the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) in 2016, 94% of respondents thought it was essential for businesses to understand how to protect their IP, and 13% said that patents were of particular importance to their business.

While small-to-medium sized businesses may have an awareness of IP, they may also lack the resources and knowledge to fully understand patents. If you find yourself in this position, here’s what you need to know.

What can be patented

“Unlike copyright, which is an automatic right assigned to any work that is usually an expression of an idea, like original literacy or music, patents protect a physical product or invention – specifically, something novel about how it works,” says Alex Peet, product development lead at the Central Research Laboratory. This London-based organisation supports companies, particularly those innovating in the hardware space, to scale up and grow their ideas.

Peet’s role is to help companies get their products in the hands of potential users, be it through connecting them to the right overseas suppliers or bringing in external support, such as patent lawyers. His role prior to this was as a design engineer for Dyson.

For a patent to be granted for an invention, it must meet certain criteria and not be excluded from the Patents Act 1977.

Factoring in legal costs

“A key thing to remember when it comes to patents, especially with businesses that have restricted budgets, is that you’re only as protected as the size of your wallet,” Peet says.

The IP awareness survey found that of the companies that had not protected their IP, 37% had not taken action because they believed it to be too expensive a process. A professionally drafted patent application will usually cost between £3,000 and £6,000, but then there are other expenses that need to be factored in, such as the cost of filing patents in several countries and potential legal costs.

Patents only protect your invention or product in the territory you apply to obtain for one

Alex Peet
Product development lead, Central Research Laboratory

“Taking someone to court for violating your patent is expensive and time-consuming,” Peet adds. “If you can’t see yourself defending any patent in court, it may not be worth applying for one in the first place.”

In the instance of delaying a patent process for whatever reason, the next best alternative is to keep your invention a trade secret, and submit an application when you’re in a better position to do so.

You think you have a patentable product or invention – what next?

If you believe your business may have something that is patentable, you should speak to a patent attorney.

“They have the expertise to help you understand how the technology works and try to find the widest net that not only covers your method [a series of steps for performing a function or achieving a result], but protects against other companies trying to get around your patent,” says Peet.

Another important job patent attorneys are responsible for is conducting searches to check whether there is any ‘prior art’ which could mean you’re unintentionally the party doing the infringing. Prior art doesn’t have to take a physical form or be commercially available – it’s usually enough that there’s evidence that someone, somewhere and sometime described it somehow.

“For example, if you’re designing a bicycle mudguard, you may be surprised to find that the earliest mudguard designs, in their rudimentary form, date back to the early 1900s,” says Peet.

What else you need to know

While a patent is designed to stop imitation, it doesn’t mean that you have a monopoly on a technology or given process.

“Patents only protect your invention or product in the territory you apply to obtain for one,” says Peet. “If it’s granted in the UK, you’ll be covered for a period of 20 years. However, you also need to renew the patent on the fourth anniversary of the date you filed your application and subsequently every year after that, for an annual fee.”

If you want protection overseas

The UK is one of 177 states signed up to the Paris Convention. Each state must grant the same protection to businesses from other contracting states as it grants its own. What this means in practice is that patentees in the UK can apply for protection in other contracting states within a certain period of time – usually 12 months, says Peet.

During the course of 2018, the Unitary Patent system is set to become operational. This is a pan-EU patent that will make it easier to acquire protection in all member states simply by submitting a single request to the European Patent Office (EPO).

“It’s worth keeping an eye on how Brexit might affect this,” Peet says. However, as it stands, the UK's decision to leave will have no immediate legal consequences.

The latest EPO annual report, published in March, shows that there were 5,313 patent applications from UK-based individuals and companies in 2017, up 2.4% on 2016.

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