Gary Townley, Business Manager at the UK Intellectual Property Office outlines the importance of protecting your innovation and research through Intellectual Property protection
Staying ahead of the competition and innovating are key elements to the success of any business. Without innovation it is only a matter of time before your rivals leave you behind and your business quickly becomes yesterday’s news.
For many, research and development (R&D) is the answer however it is often an expensive and time-consuming process. With this cost and effort in mind, protecting the resulting breakthroughs should be a priority for any business.
At the outset of any R&D project, businesses should decide what type of Intellectual Property (IP) protection is appropriate, whether to register the rights and who will own them. IP protection falls into 4 main categories:
- Patents (for inventions);
- Copyright (for creative works);
- Trade marks (for brands);
- Design Rights (for appearance).
Patents, designs, copyright and trademarks all have different advantages but cover different aspects of innovation or inventiveness.
Patents vs trade secrets
Most businesses instantly think of patents if they have developed a new product or process. Patents protect these developments but by filing a patent your technology will be published (usually at 18 months).
This gives anyone access to how your invention works. So although you get a limited monopoly on your invention for 20 years, you are allowing others and competitors to see a detailed description of how it works.
Would a trade secret be better? After all, a trade secret such as the recipe for Coca Cola can last potentially indefinitely. Can the product or process be reverse engineered, can confidentiality obligations be maintained? These are decisions that a company needs to make. Filing patents, however, can flag up to financial institutions and potential investors that the invention is worth investment and will often deter would be infringers.
Filing patents & collaboration
So having created something new and decided that patents are the best form of protection the first thing to remember is that your application must be filed before the invention is disclosed. Prior to filing, a strict policy of secrecy should be applied and the proper use of confidentiality agreements should be made.
To ensure you get the right advice it is often best to consult a patent attorney who can formulate a strategy for protecting your invention in the UK and overseas. A patent attorney will also draft your application to give the broadest protection, and will prepare the documents so they are technically and legally correct.
Many R&D projects can require collaboration, using the skills, expertise and facilities of other parties, either businesses or more often than not universities. If you are thinking of undertaking collaborative research with a university, the UK IPO has developed a set of agreements that you can put in place to cover the ownership, financial, and other contributions made by the commercial partner and the use of the results for academic purposes. The Lambert agreements can be accessed via the IPO website.
Look before you leap
Patents are also a great source of technical information. Businesses have access to millions of patent documents giving full disclosure of the invention and often this technology is free to use as the patent has expired, been withdrawn or lapsed.
It is often said that a lot of R&D is wasted because the technology is already available in a patent document. So before investing significant amounts of money in research projects, why not search the free patents database, Espacenet. This can give you an early indication of whether the technology is worth pursuing further and whether investment should be made. But remember patent searching is a specialist art and another reason why consulting a patent expert is beneficial.
UK Intellectual Property Office
Please note: this is a commercial profile