Patents are used to protect inventions, which are new ideas or concepts that have a technical function or a technical aspect. They protect how new things or processes work. Therefore, if you have developed a new product, a new method of doing something, a new use for something, or a new improvement to a known product or method, you may want to consider patent protection.

To qualify as an invention, the idea or concept does not need to be a giant departure from anything that already exists. Whilst an entirely new product or method may be patentable, a technical improvement to an existing product or method may also be patentable. The technical function or aspect of your idea or concept must be new over everything that has been made public before the patent is applied for and critically, must not be an obvious improvement or combination of known features. These are the two main factors that will be considered if you choose to seek patent protection.

In most countries, some types of non-technical ideas or concepts are specifically excluded from patent protection in isolation and these include:

  • discoveries, scientific theories or mathematical methods, purely creative ideas or concepts that are usually protected by copyright,
  • methods or rules of performing an otherwise mental act including business methods and games,
  • computer programs,
  • presentation of information.

That is not to say that when a discovery, scientific theory, mathematical method, or computer program is included in an otherwise technical idea or concept, that it could not form part of a patentable invention. Ideas or concepts that fall within these categories usually need individual consideration to determine if patent protection may be possible at all, or whether it might be possible to obtain a patent in a different country.

A patent is obtained through an application procedure and it is vitally important that the invention is confidential at the time that a patent is applied for.

To obtain a patent in a particular country a patent application will need to be filed in that country. A patent specification is a complex document that has specific legal requirements if it is to be acceptable. Since it is not possible to add information to a patent application once it has been filed, it is important to get it right at the beginning to avoid unnecessary fees and disappointment.

There are a number of application procedures that cover multiple countries. For example, the European patent application procedure and the International (PCT) patent application procedure, can simplify matters and reduce costs in some cases. However, if you want protection in a country it is necessary to apply for a patent in that country.

Most countries operate a procedure for the grant of a patent which involves filing an application with the appropriate organisation which is then searched and examined for patentability under the relevant law. Should any objections be raised by the organisation, there is an opportunity to respond. During the procedure your patent application will be published. Any interested third parties can bring to the attention of the appointed Examiner any reasons for them believing that a patent should not be granted. Some countries also provide an official opposition procedure, where the objecting party becomes a more integral part of the proceedings. Through these procedures, if there are genuine reasons for a patent not being granted, they may be able to prevent grant. However, assuming that your idea or concept is found to fulfil the requirements for patentability, it will be accepted for grant.

A patent can be in force for up to 20 years from the application date. To obtain the maximum term of protection in most territories around the world, a renewal fee is generally payable every year up to 20 years.

A granted patent in a particular country provides the owner with a tool that can be used to prevent unauthorised use and importation of the patented invention in that country.

Only once a patent has been granted is it true to say that you have a patent, or that an invention is ‘patented’. These statements should be avoided whilst a patent application is simply pending. ‘Patent pending’ can be used during the application process.

For an outline of the stages, time scales and typical costs involved in obtaining patent protection, please see our Guide to Patent Protection.

If you would like to apply for a patent, or have a problem or matter concerning a patent we would be happy to help.