What is a patent?

A patent for an invention is granted by government to the inventor, giving the inventor the right to stop others, for a limited period, from making, using or selling the invention without their permission.

When patent protection is granted the invention becomes the property of the inventor, which like any other form of property or business asset can be bought, sold, rented or hired. Patents are territorial rights: UK patents will only give the holder rights in the UK and rights to stop others from importing the patented products into the UK. 

To be patentable your invention must: 

  • Be new - never been made public in any way, anywhere in the world, before the date on which the application for a patent is filed.
  • Involve an inventive step - if when compared with what is already known, it would not be obvious to someone with good knowledge and experience of the subject.
  • Be capable of industrial application - an invention must be capable of being made or used in some kind of industry. This means that the invention must take the practical form of an apparatus or device, a product such as some new material or an industrial process or method of operation. 

An invention is not patentable if it is: 

  • A discovery
  • A scientific theory or mathematical method
  • An aesthetic creation, literary, dramatic or artistic work
  • A scheme or method for performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business
  • The presentation of information or a computer program 
  • If the invention involves more than these abstract aspects so that it has physical features (such as special apparatus to play a new game) then it may be patentable. 

In addition, it is not possible to get a patent for plant variety, a method of treatment of the human or animal body by surgery or therapy or a method of diagnosis.

Layout of patent protection 

Based on typical layouts in patent specifications since the late 1970’s, before this they were likely to lack a front page and search report. 

Front page - used in the same way a book will have a title page, a patent will have a front page which gives useful bibliographical details. It uses two letter country codes and INID codes to identify pieces of information. 

An abstract - (compiled by the applicant) and may be an illustration. This layout is becoming increasingly standardised but the information given can vary from country to country. 

Opening statement - usually states the problem. 

Background information - US patents are likely to have a discussion of the ‘state of the art’ with references to key patents, books or journal articles. Problem - the nature of the problem is outlined. 

Description of the invention - Explains the inventive step and how it works. 

Claims - the numbered claims cover the legal aspects of the monopoly, with the first being the main claim and the later dependent claims referring back to earlier claims in describing what is new about the invention.  In a published application the claims are merely an attempt to get protection while the granted patent has the claims that are recognised in law. 

Illustrations - as many as required showing the invention. 

Search report - usually on the front or last page. At a minimum this consists of a list of patents or other documents suggesting that some at least of the invention is not new. More detailed search 3 reports would indicate which claims in the application were affected, the kind of relevance and the exact page and line numbers thought to be relevant in the cited document. Search reports can be valuable when trying to assess if the invention is truly new. There has been standardisation in classification. Nearly all countries now use the International Patent Classification, IPC. 

INID codes - these are numbers used to identify bibliographic elements in patent specifications, normally on the front pages. They are only sometimes given in numerical order and are nicknamed 'INID codes' after internationally agreed numbers for the identification of bibliographic data.   

What rights does a patent give? 

A patent gives the right to stop others from using your inventions. Alternatively you can choose to let others use it under agreed terms. A patent also brings the right to take legal action against others who might be infringing and to claim damages. An inventor is not required to get a patent in order to put an invention into practice, but once the invention is made public, there will be no protection against others using the invention and you would be unable to obtain a patent. The Intellectual Property Office does not ensure that others do not copy a patented invention. It is up to the owner to take any necessary action to ensure an idea is not infringed. Once ‘Granted’ or in the public domain any ideas may not be reregistered.   

Confidentiality 

Any invention should be kept confidential until it is filed at The UK Intellectual Property Office. A confidentiality agreement should be signed before any details or description is disclosed. This does not apply to patent attorneys or other professional advisors or staff helping a member of the public. This is automatically a situation of confidence.   

The Intellectual Property Office 

The IPO is the official government body responsible for granting Intellectual Property rights in the United Kingdom. Can be contacted by phone - 0300 300 2000 or by email. You can take a look at their web page

Attend a workshop or event on intellectual property at the Business & IP Centre to find out more.

Calling all entrepreneurs and inventors: if you’re looking for the key facts about patents and how to stop competitors from making, using or selling your product(s) without your permission for a limited period make sure you enrol in our Mini Masterclass ‘Patents Searching’. You’ll get plenty of opportunity to ask questions of our experts throughout the workshop and try out the patent searching databases to discover whether this form of protection is both available and suitable for your business idea.


See also

Protecting your ideas

Plan to grow your business

Plan to start your business