Ashfords works with external patent attorneys to provide clients with patent clearance, drafting, registration, prosecution and opposition services, both in the UK and oversees.
Ashfords has a significantly more comprehensive service toolkit than plain IP firms: Inventor rights demand that contractual / employment matters are considered. Start-ups need funding, corporations need financing. IP transactions require due diligence and robust agreements to be drafted. Disputes need resolving. Risks can be mitigated via IP insurance. Tax breaks may be enjoyed for research, development and patented activities. Stakeholders need protection as much as innovation.
Your business is unique, and we will pick a multidisciplinary team dedicated to your specific requirements. Our expertise spans many different sectors, and the complementary professional and legal services that we deliver mesh seamlessly with one another. Your business will get what it needs efficiently, without duplication of effort, or gaps in service.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why file patents?
Put simply, to protect technical innovation. Patents can prevent others from commercialising products or processes that have been devised for the exclusive benefit of the patent holder. Benefits that stem from this include:
- attracting investment
- keeping your competitors at bay
- increasing prestige in the eyes of your customers
- rewarding and recognising inventors of your business
- reducing corporation tax (via patent box)
What is a "patent pending"?
It sounds impressive, and can lead to some (but not all) of the benefits above. However, "patent pending" simply means is that you have filed a patent application. This can be achieved very quickly and easily. The hard part is getting that pending application through to grant.
If you don't file the patent application in the right way from the beginning, it can be impossible to rectify those mistakes later, and your patent pending will ultimately be withdrawn.
What can you patent?
In general, anything that is different and better than what "the state of the art" currently is. This can include novel combinations of existing technologies, as well as improvements to existing products or processes. Even incremental improvements can be protected – i.e. if you take an existing product, and modify it to make it better, that can be something that is deserving of patent protection.
What about patents in different countries?
Patents are territorial. A patent filed in the UK isn't effective anywhere else, and so it becomes necessary to file multiple applications in respective countries if international patent protection is sought. This can quickly become expensive, especially if you need to test out the idea commercially first to see if it is worth protecting in the first place.
Fortunately, international reciprocal agreements allow you to first file an application in one country, and then later on file in another country, and "claim priority" from your original first-filed application. It is important that this is done properly, with the right actions being taken by the relevant deadlines, or else the right to claim priority in this way can be lost.
Can you patent software?
It isn't straightforward, but yes you can. More specifically, you can patent the functional result that the software achieves, so long as it is new and inventive. This is a complex area, but just a few examples of this include:
- user-interfaces that lead to better user-computer interactions. One well-known example of this, is the "slide-to-unlock" user interface popularised by Apple. When this was first invented, touchscreens were plagued by the problem of users accidentally answering their phones. Slide-to-unlock solved this problem, providing a functional advantage over standard push buttons that were liable to the problem of being unintentionally triggered whilst in a pocket...
- improved storage or processing of data: for example, better compression or processing algorithms, cryptographic improvements, or the use of machine learning for new applications.
- better software-based "systems". This may include a mix of hardware and software. For example, barcode ticketing is something that British Airways patented over sixteen years ago. This used a combination of the code representing a ticket, its display as a barcode on a screen of a mobile, and its reading via a camera to subsequently extract the code to check whether the ticket information was valid.
Can you patent something that you've told others about?
In some circumstances, you might be able to BUT not always. Therefore, it is really important to keep as many details of your invention as secret as possible, and for as long as possible. If you get a patent granted for an idea that later transpires to have been in the public domain prior to your patent filing date, you run the risk of your patent being invalid.
The general rule in most countries, including the UK, is that it is not possible to validly patent anything that is already in the public domain. This includes information that you yourself have put there, as well those put there by other people.
How easy is it to obtain a patent?
Grant of a patent can often take several years, and can never be guaranteed, but the speed and chance of achieving grant can be vastly improved by having a comprehensive and professionally-drafted patent specification. This is because if a sufficient number of technical features are expressed in the appropriate way in the patent specification, this significantly increases the chance that some combination of those features are not known or obvious from what is already in the public domain.
How easy is it to evade a patent?
It depends on a number of factors including how well it has been drafted, what was in the public domain prior to it being filed, and the creativity of those wishing to evade it. A well-drafted patent specification describing a unique idea can be relatively broad in scope. This makes it a more powerful lever against anyone that may otherwise profit from similar ideas.
Can you avoid patents as long as you don't copy anyone?
No. One uncomfortable truth about patents is you don’t need to have copied someone else’s idea for you to be infringing their patent. You may have come up with the idea completely independently. If they got their first, and filed an early patent application, they are within their right to stake a monopoly on that concept. And if what you are doing falls within the scope of their granted patent, they can stop you in your tracks.
Do I have to first design or make the thing I want to patent?
No. You just have to have an idea, and describe it in sufficient detail. It can be a purely theoretical exercise. And so, it is entirely possible to apply for and obtain patents on where you think your (or your competitors) technology will be in the future, even if you aren't in a position to take advantage of that technological change yet.
Is the technology covered by a patent kept a secret?
When a patent application is first filed, it is kept a secret. However, after around 18 month, its contents are published for the world to see. Therefore, a patent owner needs to be comfortable with eventually disclosing all of the information that is contained within their patent specification.
If the patent is for a product that will soon be marketed and sold, and which is liable to being easily reverse engineered, then this is a moot point. By selling the product, you will effectively disclose that the invention is! However, if the patent is for technology that may not necessarily be easily visible to the market, or at least not straight away, then a more careful approach may be necessary. It may be best to keep certain details out of the patent application.
How much detail should there be in a patent specification?
There is a balance to be struck between disclosing too much vs. too little detail.
If there isn't enough detail, then the patent might not sufficiently disclose an invention to warrant protection: it isn't enough, for example, to claim your invention to be a "flying machine" without describing the arrangement of its wings and propulsion system. Also, if there isn't enough detail in a patent specification, it is more likely to fail when being examined against other concepts. The more detail, the greater the number of fallback positions in case the most general concept has already been taken.
Nonetheless, whilst an invention must be described in sufficient detail to allow someone familiar with that technology field to be able to implement the idea, it is not necessary to disclose ALL aspects of a technology that is being commercialised. For example, for computer-implemented inventions, it is often totally unnecessary to include the source code that is leads to the functions being patented. For manufacturing inventions, you may not necessarily need to specifically identify the exact composition of materials and processes being used – percentage ranges may provide enough detail without necessary giving away what might be better kept a trade secret.
Who owns a patent?
Many patent applications are filed in the name of a company, which becomes the owner of the associated patent rights. However, this is not automatic. A company cannot “invent”, and so it is strongly recommended that an agreement is prepared that transfers the rights in the invention from all the inventors to the company. This may be in the form of an employment contract, or a specific assignment, for example.
Notwithstanding the above, inventors will be specifically named on a patent application. This can be a welcome source of acknowledgment and prestige. However, inventors need to be happy that their names will be publicised as part of the published patent application.