Intellectual property rights are vital to ensure you can exclusively exploit a technology or design, but how do you ensure you've got the right level of protection?
Exclusivity means money. if you are the only person that can make something, you can charge a higher price for it. If a builder, for example, finds a new solution to a problem it may have created a valuable property interest. There are several ways to gain legal rights to protect your intellectual property, but which is the best method to use?
Patents are government-granted monopolies over new technologies. They give their owners the legal right to exclude others from replicating inventions, whether they be products or processes, for 20 years. The UK Patents Act specifically makes provision for the building trades and includes technologies relating to sanitation, earth and rock working, windows and doors, glazing, hinges and buildings generally.
In order to get a patent, an inventor, or the inventor's employer, applies to the Patent Office, disclosing the invention. The foremost requirement is that the invention be novel, meaning it is something that was unknown in the world before the inventor made the application. The intention is for this process to work as a trade-off: the inventor gets a monopoly for a limited time and the rest of us get to see how the invention works.
There is also a perception that the patenting process is expensive. That is partially true, throughout Europe at least, because of the cost of translating the patent documents into 21 official languages. Patent protection covering all the industrialised countries of the world, such as pharmaceutical companies often seek, is even more expensive.
A patent from the UK Patent Office, which is effective everywhere in Britain, can often be obtained at a moderate cost. What is moderate? It depends on the complexity of the invention, but, as an estimate, a straightforward mechanical patent, such as a device to aid in the attachment of lift cables or a process for adding dye to concrete, might require fees of a few hundred pounds and professional fees to a patent agent or solicitor of a few thousand for drafting the application and shepherding it through the application process - say, less than £5000 in total.
It is money well spent. Once a patent is granted, rights can be exploited by the patent owner, either working the patent directly or by licensing or selling it to others.
Patents are not the only form of these exclusive intellectual property rights. There are also trade marks, copyrights and design rights. Each provides differing types of protection for different aspects of creativity.
Trade mark protection applies to words or symbols used to designate a business interest. Copyrights protect literary or artistic works, although those terms are used loosely. For example, training manuals and business plans are "literary" and photographs are "artistic", regardless of the skill of the photographer. Design protection is available for the non-functional, superficial aspects of industrial products ranging from wallpaper to automobiles.
Trade marks come in two forms, registered and unregistered. One can have a UK registered mark, good for protection in Britain, or even one registered for protection in the European Union. Registration requires filing an application, the process costing as little as £500 for a registered UK trade mark and £1700 for an EU trademark, including professional and governmental fees. Unregistered marks are free. They come about through use in trade over time and are limited to the country where the mark is used.
Copyright protection is also free. It comes about automatically as soon as an author puts his or her ideas into some permanent form, such as by writing them down. Thanks to an unusually successful international convention, copyright protection is nearly worldwide and uniform in most countries.
It is possible for something to benefit from several forms of protection at the same time, for example a patent protected door lock may also have design protected styling or a copyright protected drawing of a family home that serves as a construction company's trade mark. Intellectual property, and patents in particular, reward problem-solving, so if that is what your business does you should be thinking about which legal rights will best protect your ideas.
Thomas Hays is an intellectual property and competition lawyer at Lewis Silkin