Many entrepreneurs and companies do not understand the importance of strong patent protection.
A manicure or pedicure device having at least one region of twist about a longitudinal axis. This might not sound like the most revolutionary of inventions, but its creator, Tom Pellereau, is now a household name, thanks to his winning performance on TV show "The Apprentice". The serial inventor already has several patents to his name and it seems likely that there will be many more to follow over the coming years.
Patents are also closely associated with another popular, business-focussed TV show: "Dragon's Den". Now in its ninth series, the programme's newest Dragon, Hilary Devey, has made her first investment by giving £80,000 to Liz and Alan Colleran, the inventors of the Duvalay - a combined duvet and mattress for use in caravans. Not only have the Collerans come up with an innovative product, they have also applied for international patent protection for their idea. This was an important factor in Hilary Devey's decision to invest in the couple. Had the Collerans not filed for patent protection, their idea could simply have been copied by a competitor the next day and they may have been powerless to do anything about it.
These inventors and investors clearly all understand the importance of strong patent protection to put their businesses on a secure footing. However, many entrepreneurs and companies do not.
IP value underestimated
Too often, the value of intellectual assets is only appreciated after they are lost; i.e. after a competitor has taken an idea and launched a competing product or service on the marketplace. By that stage, it is often too late to do anything about it. If appropriate patent protection is put in place at the right time, this destructive scenario can be avoided.
Why are patents sometimes overlooked? It may be that some inventors consider their ideas too mundane to be patented. For others, patents may be perceived as too expensive to obtain. However, these concerns are often unjustified.
Patents are certainly not just for world-changing inventions. The curved nail file invented by Tom Pellereau and the Collerans' combination duvet are just two examples of every-day inventions that are suited to patent protection.
How to obtain a patent
Patents can generally be obtained for any new solution to a technical problem, however big or small the problem and its solution may be. Many engineers, scientists, tradesmen, software developers, etc., will routinely conceive of patentable ideas during the course of their work. The challenge for the individual or employer is to identify these ideas and protect them in order to gain a commercial advantage by securing a unique offering or by generating income from licensing or selling the idea to others.
The costs of patenting an invention are not insignificant, but are often a tiny fraction of the value that the invention will ultimately provide. They are also typically spread over a number of years and can be tailored to suit commercial priorities and available budget. A basic UK patent can often be secured for just a few thousand pounds.
For the independent inventor, or small start-up company, obtaining patent protection can be especially important. Potential investors will always want to see that appropriate steps have been taken to protect the intellectual assets in which they are investing. By filing a patent application before talking to interested parties, an inventor can also prevent the idea from being stolen or released into the public domain prematurely.
If you have an idea which you think might be patentable, the first thing to remember is to keep it confidential. You may wish to carry out a quick search on the Internet to see if the idea seems genuinely new. However detailed searching is best left to specialist search companies and national Patent Offices.
The next step should then be to consult with a registered patent attorney, who will be able to advise you on what protection is available and give you an indication of timescales and costs. Some firms offer a free initial consultation.
Patent pending status
If the idea is suitable for patent protection, a formal application document will be prepared. This describes the invention in its broadest terms as well as any optional features. Once this is filed, the invention will acquire "patent pending" status until the application has been examined by the national Patent Offices. Once granted, a patent allows you to prevent others from exploiting your invention without your permission.
Patents are powerful tools for protecting and exploiting inventions. They are a key driver of investment in innovation and it is therefore an encouraging sign when Britain's patent-holding inventors and entrepreneurs are accorded celebrity status on our televisions.
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