How to apply for a patent to protect your intellectual property
It can be a long, tortuous process - but you must get it right
You need the appropriate forms from the Patent Office. Your initial application must include a request for a patent, your full name and address, and a description of the invention. The description must be clear and complete, so that it can be understood by anyone who wishes to use it once the patent has expired. Once the Patent Office has these details, your application can be given a filing date.
You then have a 12-month period to decide what to do next. You might use the time to explore the idea's commercial value, look for finance to manufacture it or cover the cost of patenting it, and develop it further. If you do not take any further steps after 12 months, the application “dies”.
If you pay a search fee within that 12-month period and file claims which define the invention, your application will go through to the next stage. Patent Office examiners will check your application and the office will search to see whether your invention is new. You can then go on to publish your application, together with an abstract explaining its technical features.
The final stage towards getting a patent is the full examination, when your application will be examined in detail at the Patent Office in the light of what has been uncovered at the search stage. You can then be granted a patent, once you have paid fees of £130 for a search and £70 for examination. Annual renewal fees then have to be paid, on a sliding scale of £50 in the fifth year and £400 in the 20th and last year of your patent's life. The whole process from the filing date to the granting of the patent should not take more than four and a half years.
Using a patent agent
Though you can complete your patent application yourself, you are strongly advised to use a patent agent, who can steer you through the minefield of patent law and help you avoid expensive mistakes. Wording is crucial on patent applications and basic errors can make the patent worthless. But patent agents undergo a rigorous training in drafting patents and intellectual property law. By law in Britain, you must use a patent agent who is on the Register of Patent Agents – you can contact them via CIPA.
Patent agents – sometimes called patent attorneys – can help you make your application watertight. Some offer an initial consultation free, and they can give invaluable advice on whether an invention is worth patenting. For there is little point in following the rigorous procedure to obtain a patent if it cannot be used commercially and is unlikely to make money.
An experienced patent agent is also likely to know which apparently new inventions have been around for some time. For example, adding a spirit level to an electric drill to stop handymen putting up shelves crookedly is an idea Blake says he encountered with monotonous regularity at the Patent Office.
Patents agents can also advise you on obtaining patents more widely than in Britain. If you have no intention of exploiting your invention overseas, you may only need a British patent. But if you plan to make a European or even worldwide application, you can save considerably on fees by making a single European patent application, or using the Patent Co-operation Treaty, which covers 93 countries worldwide.
Patent agents are not to be confused with invention promoters. The Department of Trade and Industry now advises extreme care in dealings with invention promoters, to avoid expensive mistakes. Ask a potential invention promoter for evidence that they have the necessary expertise, and for their success rate. Check too that the firm rejects commercially unviable inventions, and take legal advice. “The step-by-step guide to using invention promoters”, published by the DTI, is available from the Patent Office.
However carefully you draw up your patent application, there are obvious traps the inexperienced frequently fall into. At CIPA, Blake warns, “If your invention is not worth anything, you don't want a patent in the first place. Some people just want a piece of paper with ‘patent' on it, but if there is no commercial value to it then there's simply no point.” A patent is no guarantee that you will make money from your invention.
Nor will it stop others infringing your patent, and you may have to resort to the law – though as CIPA points out, “In practice most companies don't waste time and money going to court, and will often prefer to take a licence or reach some other agreement.”
And although the patent itself may deter others from developing your invention, sometimes you will have to take it further. Mandy Haberman, inventor of the Anyway Up cup – the non-spill children's cup, fitted with a special valve – resorted to the High Court to protect sales of her cup. “Overall I think the patent system is good, it just needs a better support system to make enforcement easier for small businesses,” she explains. So get a patent, get it right, and protect your business.
The Patent Office Concept House, Cardiff Road, Newport, South Wales NP10 8QQ Tel: 01633 811010. www.patent.gov.uk
The Chartered Institute of Patent Agents Staple Inn Buildings, High Holborn, London WC1V 7PZ Tel: 08459 500505. www.cipa.org.uk
You can do your own preliminary research through the Patents Information Network, which exists in libraries in major cities throughout Britain.
You can also consult your local business advisory office. For the nearest one, contact English Business Links on 0345 567765.