Rupert Knights (1)

Patent applications have been increasing over the last year as the pandemic has sparked innovation and many companies have been born or diversified. If you intend to patent your idea, it is important that you don't publicly disclose the details, so you need to consider patenting at an early stage. Here, Rupert Knights, a Partner at law firm Forresters, explains why an early patent investigation during the research and development (R&D) phase can save you time and money, protect and set your business up for success.

Innovation is everywhere. 

It’s not just in our laptops and mobile phones. Innovation is in our chairs, desks and even clothes. Practically everything around us has been designed, created and engineered. So, pretty much everything we use has a talented and dedicated team of people behind it.

However, just as there are innovative people out there ready to come up with the next new idea, there are those looking to take advantage by copying successful products.

This is where intellectual property rights, comprising patents, designs, trademarks and copyright come into play, providing the innovators with an effective range of tools for use against the copyists.

Each has a different purpose:

  • Patents protect technical developments, such as the way in which something works, what it is made of, how it is made or how it is used
  • Designs protect the appearance (e.g. the shape) of products
  • Trade marks protect brand names and logos
  • Copyright protects creative works

Patents are extremely valuable commercial tools. Not only can they be used to prevent others from selling, making or importing an invention without the owner’s permission, but they can also be used as leverage in business negotiations. For example, they can be an advantage when seeking investment, or applying for funding such as grants, subsidies or loans. In certain circumstances, patents can even be used to secure reduced rates in UK Corporation Tax.

Patents are technical documents that provide detailed information of the inventions they cover. Patent applications are published, which is a core feature of the patent system. In return for providing detailed information about an invention, the patentee is granted a legal monopoly lasting up to 20 years from the date of filing, which prevents anybody copying it. After that, the invention is available for use and further development by others.

Published patent applications form a vast library of technical disclosures that is constantly updated. The patent system is one of the most prolific and up-to–date sources of information on applied technology in the world.

There are many reasons why early patent research can be invaluable:

1. Increase your knowledge

The patent system is readily searchable online and contains so much technical information that companies often use it as a way to add to their own research. You can search for free at espacenet or Google Patents.

Research and development can take time, so the chance to access a vast database of detailed technical knowledge shouldn’t be overlooked.

It is often the case that this technical information can’t be found anywhere else – in fact it's estimated that around 80% of current technical knowledge can only be found in patent documents.

The information is also available pretty quickly, as the patent applications are published 18 months after their first filing and any patent application must be filed in advance of the invention being publicly disclosed. Sometimes patent applications are published within months of a new product being released, or even in advance of a product release.

2. Hone your ideas

One of the benefits of patent research is that you can use it to guide your own research and funding budget. For example, you can see what work has already been done by other businesses, what has worked for them – and what hasn’t.

This insight may lead your own research and development (R&D) department to consider another more commercially advantageous direction. Around 85% of all patents are no longer in force, meaning a vast number of inventions exist that are freely usable.

3. Don’t duplicate on R&D

Many companies and organisations set off on their own course with a determined route to change the world in their chosen field, only to discover that someone else has beaten them to it.

It is thought that around 30% of all R&D budgets are wasted on redeveloping existing inventions. However, you can ensure you don’t waste time and money by carrying out your patent investigations early in the development process.

4. Beat your competitors

Monitoring patent filings in a technology area of interest to you not only uncovers the state of the art but also offers an insight into competitors' innovation strategies at an early stage. This information can be invaluable in identifying opportunities and informing your own strategies. 

5. Own the rights

Exploring patent databases at the start of your research and development can help you save money, and potentially hundreds of hours of work. Patents are the widest source of technical information and most organisations do not disclose their R&D results in any other form.

You can search the database yourself, but for help with your research you can also get in touch with a patent attorney. A patent attorney can further help you to obtain your own patents to protect your innovations, and to defend your rights, if required. Most patent attorneys offer initial consultations free of charge.

Getting a patent will prevent others from using, manufacturing, selling and importing your invention for up to 20 years from the filing date. It also provides a tangible asset to increase the value of your company.  Many companies patent their new technology with no intention of commercialising it or bringing it to market themselves. Instead, they make money by licensing or selling the idea to other companies.

To get to this position you need to make patents an early consideration. Crucially, valid patent protection is not possible when an invention is disclosed in advance of the filing of a patent application covering the invention. You must not publicly disclose your ideas before fully considering patents. 

Key takeaways

Rupert Knights is a Partner at Forresters, a leading law firm of patent and trademark attorneys with offices in Birmingham, Liverpool, London, Munich and Southampton. He specialises in assisting individuals and SMEs to develop and implement effective intellectual property strategies, drafting and prosecuting patent applications in Europe, the UK and around the world.

Contributed by Rupert Knights
Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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