Understand patent basics - what a patent is, what can be patented and more.

What is a Patent?

A patent is a legal grant of monopoly rights in respect of an “invention.”  The patent owner, also known as the patentee, may take legal action against others who make, use, sell, or import the invention without the patentee’s permission.  In exchange for this monopoly right, the patent owner provides a public disclosure of how the invention works.  In most countries, including the U.K., the patent rights lasts for twenty years after the application for the patent is filed.

What can be patented?

Patents are intended to protect new inventions.  An invention is usually a product, apparatus, or a manufacturing process.

In order to be patentable, the invention must be something that is new, can be made or used in industry, and must involve an “inventive step”—which means that the invention is not just an obvious modification of something that already exists.  A patent cannot cover anything that is already in the public domain prior to filing.  Disclosures of an invention made anywhere in the world prior to the filing of a patent application may affect a patent’s validity, so it is best not to disclose an invention until a patent application is filed.  A patent cannot cover an invention that would have been obvious to a “person of ordinary skill” in the relevant technical field.

What cannot be patented?

In most countries, including the UK, certain categories are excluded from patent protection. Excluded from patentability are abstract concepts like discoveries, scientific theories, mathematical methods, and equations.  Also, the way information is presented cannot be patentable.  Methods of doing business, playing a game, or mental acts are likewise not patentable.  Works of art such as literature, musicals, or visual works (e.g. paintings) are excluded from patentability.  For these works, copyright may be more suitable form of intellectual property protection.

While computer programs are not patentable as such, inventions involving software  may be patentable if there is a technical aspect that goes beyond the normal interaction of a computer and its software.  In vivo methods of medical diagnosis and methods of treatment (e.g. by surgery) are not patentable, though some countries allow some aspects of these to be protected.  Substances for use in therapeutic methods are, however, patentable.

In the U.K. and other European countries, ‘essentially biological’ processes like crossing-breeding plants, and plant or animal varieties are excluded from patentability.  Furthermore genes and protein sequencing are patentable in Europe, provided a concrete use is made available in the application.

What is the scope of patent rights?

A patent does not give the owner the right to make or do what is described in the patent, since this may infringe someone else’s intellectual property rights, or violate another law.  Rather, a patent gives the patent owner the legal means to stop others from using the invention claimed within the country where the patent is granted.  This means that a patent owner can seek monetary damages or an injunction from an infringer, through the national courts or an arbitration process. In most countries, it also means that a patent owner can stop imports into the country where the patent is held, though the patent owner cannot prevent others from using the patented invention in foreign countries.