How to patent your idea
New to the world of intellectual property (IP) and want to know why it matters for your business? Or wondering how to patent an idea? Check out our guide …
What it is intellectual property?
Intellectual property is a generic term that covers intangible legal rights which protect products, designs, literature and artistic works.
What's the difference between patents, registered designs, trademarks and copyright?
Patents cover innovative (but feasible) ideas and concepts. Registered designs focus on styling and overall shape, while trademarks are related to branding. Copyright covers original artistic work.
Take a car, for example. A patent might cover the engine, styling is covered by a registered design, the trademark covers the brand and copyright is the instruction manual.
Patents, registered designs and trademarks are all registered rights, which you need to apply for and pay for.
Copyright is given automatically to the creator and does not need an application process or fees; it intrinsically covers any artistic work such as art, music and literature
Why is obtaining a patent, registered design or trademarks important?
The main purpose of a patent is to protect a technical innovation, which provides an advantage over what's been done before. The invention has to be new at the time that the patent is filed and has to have some inventive concept, usually demonstrated by an advantage.
A registered design protects the appearance of a product or part of a product. The scope of the registered design is determined by the overall impression that it creates for someone looking at it. Trademarks cover a brand so become valuable as that brand gains recognition, e.g. Coca Cola.
Ultimately, IP adds commercial value to an invention, product or idea and most importantly means it can be leveraged to attract investment, sold or used to protect your advantage.
What’s all this about artistic works?
This is a catch-all category which covers a wide range of things that have been newly created. It can cover everything from a poem, drawing or song, through to an instruction manual, computer program or database rights.
Do I need a patent? How do I know?
Patents are generally the strongest rights because they attach to a concept or the features of a concept, which provide you with the advantage. Any competing company which has a similar product is then unable to add those same features.
Obtaining a patent, then, protects your innovation and stops others from copying it and using it. Customers view products which have a patent attached to it as having additional, intrinsic value, seeing them as clever, different or innovative.
A patent can give you a great commercial and competitive advantage.
Companies can benefit from the UK Government’s Patent Box tax relief – which provides an additional incentive for companies to retain and commercialise existing patents, and to develop new, innovative patented products. It has the potential to almost halve a company's Corporation Tax bill, reducing the rate to just 10% on any profits attributable to qualifying patents.
That's a generous and appealing offer for businesses - one you should seek to investigate and maximise if you're eligible to claim. You may also be eligible for R&D credits, too.
How long will my patent last? What happens if I let it expire?
A patent lasts for 20 years starting from the date of filing. However, it will also expire if the renewal fees charged by the IPO are not maintained.
All patent applications are published and in the public domain after 18 months which means your invention can be viewed by other companies. If you don’t make any improvements or changes to the product, your competitors can produce their own versions of the product, using your ideas and applications, after expiry.
When should I start thinking about applying for a patent or IP?
You should start thinking about applying as soon as you have finalised the technical features which deliver the advantages of the invention and when you've been able to reasonably test that these work.
Some people start with a patent and then start designing. Once a patent application is filed, you have 12 months to file back-up applications with improvements if you then update the design, attaching the data to the earlier application. However, if you find that during the design period that the product changes considerably, then you will likely need to file a completely new patent application.
If you work in an area where there’s a lot of commercial competition, then it makes sense to be ‘first to file’, even if the design is going to change along the way as long as you have developed the design sufficiently to support your application.
Do I need to apply for registered designs at the same time?
No. Typically, registered designs should be filed at the latest possible moment, once the design is finalised, but before it's publicly disclosed.
For example, there would be no point filing a registered design on a concept car, because by the time it reaches production, the wheels get smaller, the windows get bigger and all sorts of major styling details change.
Making a minor tweak is fine, because you will still have the same overall impression, but if you change the shape or appearance of a major feature, then you may move substantially away from original look. There was classic example of this - when Apple sued Samsung over its iPad. Apple’s pre-production model design registration didn't cover its own iPad ‘look’ and the case was lost, enabling Samsung to copy the production model and get away with it.