You might have a lucrative idea, or a spark of inspiration that you have turned into an invention, but it is vital that you protect it. One way of doing so is to apply to the UK Intellectual Property Office for a patent. It is one of several different types of intellectual property, such as copyright, design right and trademark. The British Library describes a patent as granting territorial rights. It gives you the right to stop anyone else from using your invention, and means you can take legal action against others if they infringe it. While they can be highly effective, patents are also complex, so it is important to ensure yours is sufficiently strong to provide the protection you need.

How Long Does a Patent Last?

In the UK, a patent can last 20 years and runs from the point at which you file it. However, you must also maintain a patent and means paying the renewal fees. The first of these payments is on the fourth anniversary of when you filed. After that you need to renew every year on the due date, which is the last day of the month in which you filed.

How Effective is a Patent?

For a patent to work for you, it needs to be the right solution for your intellectual property (IP) protection. A patent is not appropriate for all forms of IP, which is why it is not automatically granted, unlike copyright or design right.

To patent an idea it must be:

  • New
  • Inventive
  • Something you can make or use.

Patents are not easy to obtain, and the process can take up to five years. It also costs money. Therefore it makes sense to first consider whether the money you expect to make from your idea or invention will exceed the money you will have to spend to protect it through a patent. You should also think about whether another form of IP would be appropriate, as well as being cheaper, before pursuing a patent.

However, if you decide to get one it gives you the right to stop anyone else from manufacturing, selling or importing your invention without your permission. It protects your invention for a set period and gives you the option to license its use for others or even to sell it. Some businesses operate by collecting royalties from licensed patents.

How Much Protection Does a Patent Provide?

A patent will provide a certain degree of protection but on its own a UK patent will only cover this country. That is one weakness in the system: currently, there is no single international patent you can apply for. You can apply for patent protection in several countries at once using the European Patent Convention (EPC) or the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).

The PCT is the nearest to an international patent, but there are still some countries outside it for which you would then have to make a separate application.

Making the Right Decision about a Patent

How much protection you require for your invention will largely depend on what you think its intrinsic value is and also what business objectives you have. You must follow the process properly. If you want a patent, you must not let anyone know about your invention unless it is in the strictest confidence. Only after you have filed your application with the UK Intellectual Property Office can let others know.

If your patent is going to be successful, it must not come under an excluded category, such as:

  • Works of art
  • Scientific theories
  • Mathematical methods
  • Presentation of information.

Your invention must be something that is new, involve an inventive step and be applicable in some form of industry.

Enforcing Your Patent

To make sure your patent is as strong as you require it to be, you may need to enforce it as well as file it in the first place.

While the patent gives you the right to stop others using your invention, if it ends up being used by someone else without your consent you will need to exercise this right by taking out an injunction.

That stops them legally, and allows you to claim damages. Often the fact that you have a patent is enough to deter others from using your invention.

To make your patent work for you, you must:

  • Apply for the appropriate patent, whether in the UK or internationally
  • Ensure you keep your patent up to date by renewing regularly
  • Enforce your patent where necessary.

Patents can be effective, but also complicated to apply for. It makes sense, therefore, to seek the right kind of professional advice and support from a patent attorney.