When you think you’ve invented the best thing since sliced bread, you should usually try to patent it as quickly as possible. However, it’s not always that simple and a slipshod application could be worse than useless.
So your first port of call will probably be a patent agent. Their primary role is to advise you on how much it will cost, and whether it is worth proceeding with a patenting programme at all. A good one can even advise you on the commercial aspects of your invention and help you to prepare the necessary documents. The problem, however, is finding and choosing a good patent agent, and ensuring you get the best out of them.
It is possible to file for a patent yourself and the patent office will help you with the formalities. However, many people engage a qualified patent agent to make the filing for them because they believe they are more likely to get a patent of real value if they do so.
A good patent agent knows the procedures for obtaining a patent here and abroad and will have expertise in describing your invention in such a way that you get the best protection. The difference is that patent agents have set fees for standard procedures and charge by the hour for other work. Invention agencies see the work as an investment and may fund the procedure in return for a share in the profits from the invention.
Patents are anti-competitive instruments. In return for telling the world how to do something and thus adding to the general store of knowledge, a patent gives you a monopoly of up to 20 years (from the date on which you file for your patent) to prevent others from making and selling your invention. This is a powerful right and hence not granted lightly. Also, there could be many similar inventions with only subtle or technical differences.
The words used to describe your invention are therefore vital and will probably be given a literal meaning. If a dispute arises, claims may be given a narrow definition. This means that unless the person copying your invention does so word for word, you may not be able to enforce your monopoly. So you can see how important it is to get the wording right.
This is one reason why the most important point to ensure when choosing a patent agent is that they have experience of preparing patent claims in the particular field relevant to your product.
So if you are patenting software, find someone who has filed for patents for software before. Furthermore, a patent agent who knows what developments are taking place in your field is more likely to be able to describe your innovation in terms that will maximise its potential value.
An example, albeit simplified, is the person who invented the ring-pull can. Because he patented the wider concept rather than just the detail, he later enjoyed royalties on someone else’s subsequent non-detachable or pop-top design. His agent earned his fee!
Patents are territorial. So you can file for a patent throughout Europe rather than just the UK. You can even apply for a worldwide patent. However, your application will have to be examined in each country in which you seek a patent. Apart from the obvious expense of translation, you will need to check that the patent agent you engage in the UK has good co-agents in the countries you consider to be the most important markets for your invention.
Ideally, these agents should also be experts in the relevant field of technology, as they will have to respond to any objections to your patent from a local patent office.
Some patent agents are able to advise you on how to capitalise on your invention. In the early stages, you may need help on confidentiality issues and non-disclosure letters. As matters progress, you may need help on preparation of heads of agreement, licensing, research and development as well as joint venture agreements.
A patent agent who is familiar with how such agreements are structured, and what possibilities there are, will be of great help, though you will; probably need to seek proper legal advice before committing yourself to contracts. If your patent agent is not able to offer such advice, at least establish whether they have good contacts with solicitors who are able to assist as things move forward.