What Is a Patent? How To Protect Your Invention

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with ten years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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What Is a Patent? How To Protect Your Invention

During the conception and development stages of a new invention, many companies and inventors start to wonder how patents work and how long a patent is good for. So what is a patent? What can you patent? And what does a patent protect?

What is a Patent?

A patent is designed to protect an invention from being plagiarised or stolen by a third party. It is an intellectual property right granted to the inventor, which legally forbids anyone except the owner - or parties who have been given permission by the owner - from making or distributing the design in question.

A patent is granted by the government of the country in which the patent is applied for. The application process can be very long and expensive, so first of all it’s important that you consider the viability of your design for patenting and whether there are other options that are better suited to your needs.

What Can You Patent? Does My Invention Qualify For a Patent?

There are certain caveats surrounding what you can patent in the UK. In order to apply for a patent, your invention needs to meet the following criteria:

  • Your design must be functional - i.e. it must have a usable purpose.
  • Your design must be new.
  • Your design must be unique - modifications and updates to existing designs will not be eligible for patenting.

It’s also important to note that you cannot patent a design which you have already taken to market. Once an invention is in the public domain, it’s no longer classified as a new design and therefore, does not meet the specified criteria. To prevent a possible breach, inventors are urged not to discuss their design with third parties unless a non-disclosure agreement has been signed and returned.

Copyright vs Patent:

If you’re wondering ‘what’s the difference between a patent and copyright?’, then the answer is simple. Copyright applies to artistic works, such as artwork, books and songs and much like a patent, it prevents them for being plagiarised or reproduced by outside sources. Patents are designed to protect functional, physical inventions, meaning that they are applicable to the engineering and manufacturing markets, whilst copyright generally is not.

Applying For a Patent - What Should I Know?

If you’re applying for a patent, then you need to have realistic expectations surrounding the journey. What many people fail to understand about the patent application process is that it can take up to five years to complete, meaning that you’ll need to have a long-term view and endless amounts of patience. Patents are also extremely difficult to obtain - according to GOV.UK, only 1 in 20 patents are granted without outside assistance - that is, professional help which can become extremely expensive.

If you do decide that patenting your invention is the way forward, then you might want to consider using the services of a UK patent attorney or UK patent advisor. The patent application process can be extremely difficult to navigate, meaning that you’ll improve your chances of the patent being approved if you seek the help of an expert. You’ll also need to provide the required documents and payments within strict time frames or risk jeopardising your application - a patent attorney can ensure that you don’t miss any important deadlines.

If a patent is granted, then you’ll also need to pay an annual renewal fee to ensure its continuation. Without this payment, your patent will become void - it’s difficult to imagine anything more disheartening than putting in all that time and effort, only to find that you’re unable to maintain the longevity of the patent from a financial standpoint!

Because the fees involved are non-refundable, it’s important that inventors applying for a UK patent are confident in the viability of their design for patenting purposes, as well as being sure that they have the time, resources and money available to dedicate to the application process.

How Long Is a Patent Good For?

Patent expiration automatically occurs after 20 years but in order to keep your patent during this period, you will need to renew it at regular intervals throughout its lifetime. Patent renewal must first occur on the fourth anniversary of its filing date and then on every subsequent anniversary thereafter.

You can renew a patent by making the applicable payment to the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO). The amount required increases year on year, starting at £70 in year 5 and reaching £610 by year 20.

Alternatives to Patenting:

Because of the technicalities that surround patenting, along with the drawn-out application process and the financial commitments involved, it’s safe to say that it’s not for everyone. There are alternative options to patenting which may be better suited to your needs:

Design Right:

Design rights help to prevent the plagiarism of the design only, i.e. the configuration and shape, as opposed to the application or the purpose of the design. A design right can be used to protect the aesthetics of your invention for up to 15 years, although it will not deter a third party from creating a product that can be used for the same purpose as your design, provided that it looks different to your own.

Trade Mark:

A trade mark applies to a brand instead of a design, but it may be a more viable option for those who are looking to go to market with their product sooner rather than later. Whilst the patenting process takes years, a trade mark can be obtained within a matter of months. It is also substantially cheaper to obtain and maintain a trade mark than it is to get a patent, making it more appealing to start-up companies and smaller organisations.

Non-Disclosure Agreements:

As well as being used to prevent disclosure of a design before applying for a patent, a non-disclosure agreement can be used as an alternative to patenting if your invention is due to go into production for a short amount of time. By insisting that subcontract suppliers and other parties involved within the manufacturing process are bound by the terms of such an agreement, you can rest easy that nobody is going to spill the beans on your invention prior to it going to market. Non-disclosure agreements are easily drawn up and are legally binding, making it a far cheaper and easier alternative to applying for a patent.

Filing For a Patent - Final Considerations:

Before you file for a patent, it’s also worth noting that, once granted, the patent will only be valid in the country whose government have issued it. For example, a UK patent will prevent your invention from being plagiarised or reproduced within the UK, but cannot stop anyone overseas from recreating your design and passing it off as their own.

Prior to application, you will also be responsible for checking that no existing patents - or ongoing patent applications - exist for similar inventions that could dispute the originality of your design from the IPO’s standpoint. You can do this by browsing the IPO’s website.

Finally, it’s worth taking some time to consider whether or not you should patent your invention, instead of rushing into the process. Take the time to educate yourself on what to expect, the documentation you will need to provide and the costs involved. If you’re unsure as which steps to take, then consult a patenting attorney prior to taking the plunge. Patenting is a huge commitment in many ways and you don’t want to find that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew!