A patent is granted by the Patent Office for an invention and can last for a period of 20 years from the date the patent is applied for, subject to payment of annual renewal fees. A patent is a monopoly right awarded to the inventor or owner of the invention and the scope of that monopoly right is determined by the claims of the patent which have to be filed within 12 months of the application date. It is necessary to prepare a written specification for the patent which should initially include a description of the invention sufficient to enable a person skilled in the art to put the invention into practice as well as one or more statements of invention which define the invention in broader terms than the particular embodiment described. Often the patent specification will include drawings to enable a satisfactory explanation of the invention. A patent specification is a legal document and the drafting of the patent specification requires considerable expertise and skill in order to obtain the most appropriate scope of protection.
In order to be patentable an invention must not be known to the public anywhere in the world prior to the application date (except under an obligation of confidence with the inventor) and the invention must be considered to involve an inventive step. Thus, a patent would not be granted for a development or innovation which is thought to be obvious even though it may be new or involve some novelty. To be patentable an invention must meet certain criteria, for example, it is not possible to patent a new theory or mathematical method or mere idea. In order to be patentable there must be some element of function involved with the idea and a patent is not awarded, for example, for the mere protection of the aesthetic appearance of an article (see Registered Designs). However, the position taken by the Patent Office as to what inventions might be patentable is subject to change and it has recently become possible to patent computer programs provided there is a technical effect which can result from the computer program. It is possible to patent an innovative piece of apparatus or an industrial process or method.
The patent specification is examined by the Patent Office who will conduct a search in order to locate information on inventions of a similar nature. Any documents located by the examiner during the search may result in a change in the patent claims of the patent specification being necessary in order for the patent to be granted. However, once the patent application has been filed it is not possible to introduce any new subject matter into the same patent application. It may take up to 4 years or so for a patent to be granted by the Patent Office but this is not necessarily a disadvantage. A pending patent application leaves a degree of uncertainty for the competition since the exact scope of a patent is not determined until it is granted.
If patent protection is required in a foreign country then it will usually be necessary to file applications for further protection abroad within 12 months of filing the UK patent application. Patenting abroad can be complex and it is possible to file both a European patent application and an International (PCT) patent application. Even though an International patent application may be filed this does not result in the granting of an International patent. Eventually, the patent documents making up the International patent application have to be sent to national or regional Patent Offices and separate patent applications are granted in respect of the national country concerned and/or regional Patent Office (for example, European Patent Office).
It is important to realise that just because a patent has been granted does not necessarily mean that the patent is wholly valid or that it could not be challenged in a Court of Law. For example, the examiner may not have located the most pertinent prior art since the search systems involved are not infallable.
The costs for applying for a patent vary considerably depending on the time taken in drafting the patent specification by your Chartered Patent Agent/Attorney, the complexity of the issues involved during prosecution of the Application to Grant through the Patent Office and prior art located by the Patent Office Examiner. Initial filing costs may be in the order of £800-2000 + VAT depending on the nature of the invention.
Thus, anyone seeking to protect an invention by way of patent is strongly advised to seek appropriate advice from a Chartered Patent Agent/Attorney before proceeding if valuable patent rights are not to be put at risk.