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What do a computer mouse, a seat belt, and a Playmobil figure have in common? The creators applied for a patent for all these inventions. This protected their product from being imitated and enabled them to reap the fruits of their labour.
Patents influence the innovation rate and are therefore an important factor for a country’s economic growth. In the UK, the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is responsible for granting patents for protecting inventions and for registering trademarks. A UK patent isn’t an automatic right, so you have to ensure you apply for it to the IPO.
The history of patents in the UK
2017 was an especially important year for the UK since it marked the 400th anniversary of the first ever British patent being granted.
In 1852, the Patent Law Amendment Act created the Patent Office. The commissions had to print and publish the records of English patents for any inventions granted patents before 1852. In order to carry out this task successfully, they had to refer to a series of docket books that went as far back as 1617, which listed all the grants that had been made under the Great Seal. The earliest patent register, known as GB1, was granted on 2nd March 1617 to Rapburne and Burges of London and was to do with a production of a map of London.
From October 1852 onwards, British patents covered the whole of the United Kingdom and were printed and published regularly each week in the form of a pamphlet. Each document names the patentee and contains a technical description of the invention, sometimes even with illustrations.
What is a patent?
A patent is a legal right granted by the UK Intellectual Property Office for a new invention, which means that the inventor can prevent anyone else from making, selling, or using the invention for a certain period of time.
In some countries, different kinds of patents exist. In the USA, patents are divided into three types: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents, but in the UK, patents only apply to inventions since designs have to be protected through unregistered design rights or registered designs. An invention is typically an apparatus, a product, a manufacturing process, etc.
Patents are territorial rights, meaning that if you apply and are granted one in the UK, then it will only be valid there. If you decided to sell your invention overseas, you may need to get patent protection according to the other country’s rules.
What are the basic requirements for a patent?
You can’t just get anything patented in the UK. The process is costly and lengthy so make sure patenting your invention is worth it. Also make sure it falls into one of these categories:
- Your invention is a new component or innovative product e.g. a new type of Tupperware that stops produce from spoiling as quickly.
- Your invention is a new apparatus or equipment used in an industrial process e.g. a new kind of tool for cutting tough material.
- Your invention is an industrial process or a way of manufacturing something e.g. a new way to shape metal.
Your invention cannot fall into the excluded category, which includes works of art, mathematical methods, scientific theories, and the presentation of information.
In order to apply for a patent, you need to make sure that your invention hasn’t been published by someone else before you. You also can’t have told anyone about it until your application is filed with the UK Intellectual Property Office.
How do you apply for a patent?
You can either do it yourself or authorise a patent agent to file it for you. These agents are qualified people who are familiar with the IPO and know how the application process works. You can send your application by post, fax, deliver it by hand, or apply online to the UK Intellectual Property Office.
Your application to the UK Intellectual Property Office must contain your name and address, a request for a patent, and a description of your invention (with illustrations if possible). The UK application fee costs between £230 and £280 and you have a year to make the payment.
The IPO will send you a receipt once it has received your request and has given it a filing date. Now you are free to use your invention without having to worry about messing up your chances of receiving the patent.
What to do next?
After you’ve filed, you can spend the first year simply developing your idea further. After a year, you are obliged to file:
- Claims defining the protection you are seeking. These are very important since you can only sue a competitor if they produce exactly what is described in the claims.
- An abstract giving a short summary of the invention.
- A request for a search with a fee.
The IPO will then conduct a search to find documents showing inventions similar to yours and then issue a search report listing anything they have found from around the world that might show that your invention is nothing new. By doing this, you can find out quite quickly whether a patent looks likely or not for you.
18 months after filing, the patent application will be automatically published so anyone can look at it. Within the next six months, you have to pay a further fee and request an examination. The UK Intellectual Property Office might write to you in this time to explain that your invention isn’t new or inventive. You then have a certain amount of time to convince them otherwise (usually by changing the description).
If the IPO does give your invention the green light, your patent will be granted. This will be published in the IPO’s Official Journal and they will send you a certificate.
A UK granted patent usually takes around four years to obtain from the date of application. However, if your invention isn’t too complex, you reply to IPO as quickly as possible when receiving letters from them, and you pay some early fees, the whole process could be completed in around 18 months.
How to enforce the patent
Now that you have patented your invention, it makes sense to refer to it in your product literature so that others are aware of it. However, if you notice that someone is using your invention without your permission (this is known as infringement), you can get an injunction to stop them and claim damages (compensation). The UK Intellectual Property Office handles cases like these or you can go to the High Court or the Patents County Court.
In the amount of time between filing your patent and receiving your patent, you are not able to sue other for using your invention, but once your patent is granted, it might be possible to claim damages retrospectively.
How long is a patent valid for?
This legal right has a maximum life span of 20 years in most countries and this is valid from the date that the patent was applied for. The inventor, however, still needs to make sure they aren’t infringing on other people’s rights when using the invention even though they have the patent for it. In order to retain your rights, you have to renew your patent regularly. This is easy to do; you can do it online or by post and the UK Intellectual Property Office takes care of it.
The first time you have to renew is on the fourth anniversary of the date that you filed the patent. After that, you need to renew every year until the end of the patent lifetime (up to 20 years). It’s possible to renew your patent up to three months before, or up to one month after the payment due date (considered to be the end of the calendar month in which your patent was first filed). The IPO will notify you if you fail to renew on time. You can renew it up to six months after the due date, but you will have to pay late fees (£24) on top of the renewal fee.
This table shows the renewal fees depending on the year and whether you pay before or after 6th April.
How many patents have been filed in the UK?
In the last decade, the number of patent applications has stayed relatively the same. According to GOV.UK, 22,256 applications were filed in 2011 and 7,173 of these were granted. In 2017, 22,072 applications were filed, and 6,311 were granted.