What is a patent?

Frequently asked question on intellectual property

A patent is an intellectual property right to protect inventions, granted by a country’s government as a territorial right for a limited period. Patent rights make it illegal for anyone except the owner or someone with the owner’s permission to make, use, import or sell the invention in the country where the patent was granted. A UK patent has a life of 20 years and provides protection throughout the UK so long as renewal fees are paid every year. 
For a patent to be granted the invention must be:
  • Novel
  • Inventive
  • Have industrial applicability
About Patents
General information on patents and the patenting process can be accessed via the following link: http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/patent/p-about.htm. The following information summarises the key points, but also includes specific information and guidance on how and when to apply for specific protection within the University.
Why protect your inventions?
Once an invention is made publically available through publication of a paper, poster or presentation to someone outside the University and is not protected by a patent, anyone can make use of the invention and is under no obligation to reference the originator. We are very aware of the need to publish research findings and the importance of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to both individuals and to the University. An increasingly important factor is the reported impact of our research and the University’s ability to create diverse income streams through translation and commercialisation of this research. The filing of patent applications by Universities is measured as a public benefit, but it also provides the essential protection and platform by which to build a commercial case for investment. More often than not, the existence of a patent can help strengthen a research paper. The filing of a patent application does not delay publication – but filing must occur before publication.
Is your idea a secret?
By far the most common mistake made by people new to the world of patents is to reveal their invention too early. If you disclose your invention in any way – by word of mouth, demonstration, advertisement, article in a journal or any other way – before you apply for a patent, you are making your invention public. This could mean that you lose the possibility of being granted a patent. For a patent to be granted the invention must be novel, once a public disclosure is made the invention can no longer be novel.
Beware who you talk to….
If you feel the need to talk to someone before considering protection, such as a potential business partner, you should ask them to sign a confidentiality agreement (Non-Disclosure Agreement – NDA) before you talk to them. This means they have to treat what you tell them in confidence. If you are an employee of the University, the University has 2 Specialist IP Advisors (contact ipmatters@plymouth.ac.uk)who will be able to prepare one for you (see Confidentiality). Any conversation you have with patent attorneys, solicitors or the University’s Specialist IP Advisors, including representatives of Frontier IP Group PLC, is confidential, so anything you say will not count as disclosing your invention early.
Can a UK patent protect an invention in another country?
No, a UK patent only gives the owner rights within the UK. For protection overseas, you need to apply to patent offices in individual countries or through the international patent system, known as the Patent Co-operation Treaty (PCT). Or, you can get patent protection in most European countries by filing an application under the European Patent Convention (EPC). We can offer advice on completing EPC and PCT applications, but applying overseas can be both complicated and costly so we advise anyone deciding to take this route to get professional advice from a patent attorney.
Who can own a patent?
The owner can be the inventor, the inventor’s employer or someone else who has got the patent rights. If you made your invention, even if it was in your own time, while employed by someone else you need to check your employment circumstances carefully as your employer may have some rights to your invention. 
The University has an Intellectual Property Policy (see IP Policy) which explains and provides more detail as to the University’s approach to Intellectual Property Rights. You are required to comply with this Policy.
Whilst acknowledging your rights arising from statute, by virtue of the nature of your duties and the responsibilities arising from them, you have a special obligation to further the interests of the University, and subject to a few exceptions, all inventions and all materials embodying them shall automatically belong to the University to the fullest extent permitted by law. To the extent that they do not vest in the University automatically, you hold them on trust for the University.
What kind of things do patents cover?
Patents can be used to protect any invention that meets the fundamental criteria of novelty, inventiveness and it has to have real world use. So generally products or processes that contain ‘new’ functional or technical aspects can be protected. They are concerned with how things work, how they are made, or what they are made of. Certain subject matter is not patentable under UK patent law:
(a) a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method;
(b) a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work or any other aesthetic creation whatsoever;
(c) a scheme, rule or method for performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business, or a program for a computer;
(d) the presentation of information;
Can all inventions be patented?
No. An invention can only be patented if it is:
  • novel – not already known to the public before the date a patent is applied for;
  • inventive – not an obvious modification of what is already known; and
  • capable of industrial application, that is, can be made or used in any kind of industry.
In other words, your invention must make a technical contribution. This means you can’t, for example, patent a continual motion machine. Inventions relating to computer software may be patentable, but only if they involve something more (technical effect) than just software running on a computer in a technically ordinary way.
How to apply
Getting an invention patented can be complicated so we provide a service for the University through the Specialist IP Advisors (contact ipmatters@plymouth.ac.uk), including in-house support and expertise to assist you in any application. Normally, the team would have already been involved in the ‘innovation disclosure’ process (see Innovation Disclosure on the main Intellectual Property pages) and been instrumental in the creation of a related business case for any commercial application, identifying the need for protection as appropriate.
Patents are a legal document that contain a technical specification. Patents are not a scientific paper and due to the importance of the language used, the University always uses a chartered patent attorney or other professional advisor. The patent application must clearly define the scope of the patent in the claims and the invention must be clearly described with examples of application in the specification. Anyone should be able to take the patent application and put your invention into practice. If undue experimentation is needed to get the invention to work the patent will be found to be invalid due to not being enabled. Patent attorneys (or agents) are legally qualified and independently regulated.
How long does it take?
From the time an application is filed, the UK patent application process usually takes between three and four years before the patent is granted.