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Finding patent information: Introduction

What is a patent?

A patent is a document giving an inventor a legal, exclusive right to make, use and sell their invention in a particular country or countries, for a given period of time (normally 20 years). 

  • it includes a description of the process/item to be patented
  • it includes claims defining the scope of the legal right

A patent is granted by a state in exchange for the 'complete' disclosure of the invention with the aim of advancing the economy. An invention does not have to be patented, an alternative is to keep the invention a 'trade secret'. For example, the recipe for Coca-Cola is a trade secret and has never been patented or disclosed.  The inventor does not have to manufacture the product themselves: patent rights can be sold or licensed to others.

Why is patent information useful?

Research activities of universities are normally published in journal articles.  Commercial companies rarely publish their research in journals: if it is published at all it will normally be in a patent document.  Much of the information held in patent documents never appears in journal articles.  In addition to finding unique information you can use the patent literature to:

  • find out which companies are working in your area of interest: this may help you to locate partners or sponsors
  • avoid infringing someone else's patent rights
  • assess the potential for patenting your own research.

What can be patented?

To be patentable an invention must fulfil the following criteria:

  • It must be new: something already produced cannot be patented
  • it must contain an inventive step which should not be obvious to someone already working in that area
  • it must not have been previously disclosed to anyone at all without a confidentiality agreement in place.  Speaking about it at a conference or writing about it in a journal article would prevent it being patented. If you are writing a PhD thesis and intend to patent your research, the thesis must have an embargo placed on it.
  • It must be capable of commercial exploitation: patents are expensive to get and to maintain!  

Creative works such as literary, musical or artistic works are covered by copyright not patent law.  Similarly, scientific or mathematical theories and computer programs are normally protected by copyright. 

Applying for a patent in the UK

Gaining some understanding of the patenting process is important for patent searching, as different documents are produced during the process.

This is a summary of the process for the UK:

  • the applicant prepares a specification which describes the invention and files an application at the UK patent office 
  • the patent office gives the application a number and a priority date
  • the patent office carries out a search to check that the invention fulfils the key requirements of being new and containing an inventive step.  A search report is sent to the applicant, who may withdraw, correct or modify their application.
  • a patent application document will be published approximately 18 months after the application is filed.  This document is labelled 'A'  for Application.
  • the application then goes through a more thorough examination process which will check, for example, that the description and claims match and are good enough to patent.
  • If the patent is granted, a 'B' document will be published: this is the final, legally binding version. 

The 'A' and 'B' documents are NOT the same: this is important to recognise when you are searching the patent literature as you will normally find BOTH types of document indexed in the patent databases.  The major difference is often in the legal claims section.  The 'A' and 'B' documents will have an identical patent number preceded by the code GB.

Applying for a European patent

The European Patent Convention provides a legal framework for granting Europe-wide patents through an application at the European Patent Office.  A single application, once granted,  gives protection in all of the countries who have signed up to the treaty.  The patenting process is similar to the UK process above, but results in a larger number of documents:

  • A1 patent application (with search report)
  • A2 patent application (without search report)
  • A3 search report
  • A9 modified application
  • B1 patent specification (granted and legally binding)
  • B2 revised patent specification

All the documents will have the same patent number preceded by the code EP.  Patent databases may index all of these or only some of these.

Worldwide patents

The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) is an international treaty which simplifies the process of gaining legal protection for an invention in a large number of countries, currently 153:

A single application can be filed either at a national patent office or the World Intellectual Property Organisation. An initial search will be conducted to assess the patentability of the invention.  If it is considered to be patentable, an application document will be published.  This will be labelled 'A' for Application and have the code WO.

There is no 'B' document: the PCT application must be taken to each individual national patent office to be further assessed and, where appropriate, granted.  This leads to a large number of identical patents being published in different countries, and often in different languages.  This is known as a patent family.