Patents: what you need to know

What is a patent?

Patents are legal rights which protect technical inventions. The proprietor of a granted patent has a legal right to prevent others from exploiting the patented invention without their consent.

Patents are property rights. They can be bought, sold, licensed and used as security. They can be used to defend monopoly positions in products or processes and/or licensed to one or more other parties, usually in exchange for royalty payments.

Patents are territorial and have defined geographical coverage. For example, patents granted by the UK Intellectual Property Office cover the UK. Patents granted by the European Patent Office can give rise to rights in individual states which are members of the European Patent Convention (including the UK).

Patents are of limited duration. UK and European patents, and patents in many other countries around the world have a maximum duration of twenty years from their filing date.

The economic rationale behind patents is that they encourage investment in technical developments which would not take place if the product of those investments could be readily copied. They also provide an incentive to inventors to disclose their technical innovations, rather than keeping them secret, in exchange for a temporary monopoly.

In order to obtain a granted patent, it is necessary first to file a patent application and then to follow a patent application procedure. Once a patent has been granted, most countries require renewal fees to be paid periodically to keep the patent in force up to its maximum term. Many countries allow extended protection for pharmaceutical products which have been delayed in experimental trials and obtaining regulatory approval.

It is important to understand that patents are “negative rights”. They give the proprietor the right to apply to the Courts to stop others from exploiting a patented invention without their consent. But they don’t confer a positive right to make or sell anything. Possessing a patent does not mean that you are free to work the patented invention without infringing other patents.

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