What is a patent?
A patent provides the owner with a twenty-year monopoly right from the government of the country in which it’s granted. Patents provide you with the most effective protection to prevent unauthorised third parties (competitors) from commercially exploiting your inventions, innovations, manufacturing methods or processes. The fundamental ethos of the patent system is to incentive businesses to innovate rather than copy.
Today, the patent system can help to solve global problems around sustainability and the environmental impact of our processes and commerce. With attitudes and cultures now embracing ‘green’ technologies more than ever before, the patent system encourages businesses to design new solutions to environmental problems by ensuring the potential for massive commercial gains. If the system works correctly, businesses around the world should aim to innovate faster towards more effective technologies — whether this is products, processes or uses for all aspects of the materials, advanced materials and composites sectors.
Why should I file for a patent — is it worth the cost and effort?
Patents can be very valuable, both in terms of the rights they afford you and their monetary worth.
Typically, the filing of a patent application is the culmination of months or even years of R&D time and cost. A granted patent is an essential tool for capitalising on this significant effort and expenditure. Without a patent, most R&D successes are essentially ‘gifted’ to your competition.
Other commercial reasons for filing a patent may be to increase your company value — a patent is an asset that can be borrowed against, licensed or sold. The potential for licensing opens up further revenue streams, allowing you to sell the rights to use your innovation and, if your business is sold, the transaction could be based almost exclusively on the commercial value of your patents.
What can I protect with a patent?
Patents are granted for different types of inventions. The more common include:
- An apparatus (e.g. a new cooling system for a battery)
- A device (e.g. a cutting drill bit formed from a new composite material)
- A new process (e.g. a new, energy-efficient method of bulk manufacturing a polymer, a composite material, a coating, etc.)
- A new use for an existing device (e.g. a conventional cooking oil used as a high temperature lubricant in a complex mechanical machine/system)
How likely am I to secure a patent?
Having identified a new apparatus, device, formulation or method, your next question may be — what’s the likelihood of obtaining granted patent rights? There are three fundamental criteria to satisfy:
- The invention must be new (novel)
- The invention must have an ‘inventive step’
- The invention must be industrially-applicable
Novelty is generally straightforward to assess. This involves identifying at least one new feature associated with the new apparatus, product or method. For an advanced composite material, this may be the incorporation of one or more additives to the formulation, or even the use of common ingredients but at different concentrations.
Inventive step can be more difficult to analyse. This generally involves considering the closest existing apparatus, product or process and asking if it would be ‘obvious’ to modify a system to arrive at your new concept. For example, would it be counter-intuitive or non-obvious to have increased the concentration of one component which has actually proven to be beneficial?
Industrial applicability is also relatively straightforward — this mainly excludes such things as mere discoveries, mental methods and intangible or abstract ideas.
Understanding patent claims
The patent specification is a legal document which typically contains a mix of technical and legal jargon. The size of a specification can range from a single page to hundreds of pages, depending upon the complexity of the innovation/concept, its commercial significance and the breadth of patent protection required.
All patent specifications include a ‘claims’ section, which usually appears at the end of the document. This is the most important part of the specification. The claims (and in particular claim 1) are contained in a single sentence (usually half a page in length) that defines the invention using words and sometimes chemical symbols and nomenclature.
This definition can simply be a list of features/components. If the invention is a device or product, the definition could include a list of essential physical features, such as a new drill bit having a drill tip, a shaft provided with helical grooves, together with the spatial (and possibly functional) aspects like the grooves extending axially rearward from the cutting tip and having a specific radial depth to maximise rearward evacuation of cut material from the cutting region.
This type of description would be perfectly suitable to define the invention as it enables the reader to form a complete mental image of the concept. They can then decide if their competing product would fall within this definition and be a problematic infringement.
This is the intended purpose of the claims.
Strategies for patenting new materials
While this is only a very general outline of the primary considerations and benefits of patent protection, it can apply to all technology sectors — from chemicals, advanced materials and composites to more computer-implemented inventions or biological systems and products. Patents are granted for all aspects of technology and patent filings are increasing year-on-year worldwide. This is particularly true in the green technology sectors, where industry is responding to the increasingly strong demand for more sustainable products and processes.