Get patent protection for your business
If you create a new invention, you should consider protecting it by a patent.
A patent gives you the right to stop people from making, using, importing or selling your invention without your permission. A granted patent can remain in force for up to 20 years if you renew it regularly. A patent also allows you to license others to use your invention which can generate royalties and provide an important source of revenue for your business.
Strict rules determine what can and can't be patented. A patent may not always be the best way for you to protect your invention. This guide explains what is a patent. It describes how you can search for existing patents and how to apply for a patent for your innovative product or technology.
It also weighs up advantages and disadvantages of getting a patent and tells you how to license a patent to generate income through royalties. Finally, it describes some common ways of protecting and enforcing your patents.
What is a patent?
If you invent something that you believe to be unique and commercially viable, you should consider applying for a patent to protect your right to its use.
What is a UK patent?
In the UK, the term 'patent' refers to the exclusive right granted to you to prevent others from manufacturing, importing, using or selling your invention:
- without your permission
- for a set period of time
- in the country or countries in which you hold that patent
A UK patent is not an automatic right. You have to apply for it to the UK Intellectual Property Office.
How do you patent an idea in the UK?
Patents don't protect ideas that exist in your mind alone. To be capable of patent protection, your ideas have to be written down, drawn or otherwise embodied into an invention (eg as a prototype or a product).
You may consider applying for a patent if you invent:
- a new component or innovative product - eg a new type of lid for a drinks carton which keeps the contents fresh for longer
- an industrial process or way of making or manufacturing something - eg a new plastic-moulding technique
- new apparatus or equipment used in an industrial process - eg a new kind of tool for cutting metal
A patent is a valuable asset and can form the basis of a business. However, patent costs can be considerable and the application process can be lengthy, so it's important to consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of getting a patent.
Different types of patents
In some countries, including the USA, different types of patents exist. Two main types are utility patents and design patents.
UK patent rights:
- apply across the UK
- last for up to 20 years (subject to renewal)
- are intellectual property assets that you can buy, sell and license
The key thing to keep in mind is that patents are territorial rights. If you take out a patent in the UK, it will only be valid in the UK. If you wish to sell your invention abroad, you may want to consider seeking patent protection in other markets. See how to apply for patents in other countries.
To maintain your rights, you will have to defend your patent against any infringement. See more on patent protection and enforcement.
Patents may not always be the best course of protection for your idea. You may want to consider other types of legal protection for intellectual property rights.
Can I patent my idea or invention?
To apply for a patent, you must be the legal owner of your invention. If you created it as part of your work as an employee, you are unlikely to be the legal owner.
What can be patented?
To be eligible for a patent, an invention must be:
- New - your invention must not have been made public before you apply for a patent. This means secrecy is essential when you are developing your idea. See non-disclosure agreements.
- Inventive - meaning the idea wouldn't be an obvious development to someone with a good knowledge of the field.
- Industrially applicable, ie capable of being made or used in some kind of industry. You can't get a patent for a theory or an idea, a discovery, an artistic work or an animal or plant variety, though there may be other ways to protect this intellectual property. See protecting intellectual property.
See also what is a patent.
What cannot be patented?
Certain things are not open to patent protection. For example, you can't patent:
- literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
- a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method
- a procedure of medical treatment or diagnosis
- a rule or method of playing a game or thinking
- a presentation of information
- some computer programs or mobile apps
- 'essentially biological' processes like crossing-breeding plants
Finally, you won't be able to get a patent for any idea or invention that isn't novel. You may want to research the market and look through the patent databases to determine if someone has claimed this idea before. See how to search for existing patents.
Should you get a patent for your idea?
The fact that you may be able to get a patent doesn't necessarily make patent protection worthwhile. It's important to understand that not all patents have financial value or the potential for making a profit.
To get the most from your patent, think carefully how you plan to make money from it. You may want to develop a business plan and work out if the costs of getting and keeping a patent could be more than the money you will make.
You will also need to factor in the possibility of having to defend your patent against copying in the markets you're interested in, which can be costly. You should carefully consider all the advantages and disadvantages of getting a patent.
Even if you can patent your invention, other forms of intellectual property protection may offer a better strategy. See more on trade marks, trade secrets, copyright for your business and design right and registration.
Advantages and disadvantages of getting a patent
There are many possible advantages and disadvantages of patents. When deciding if you should apply for a patent, you should look at your invention and consider the risks of not patenting it against the costs of doing so.
Advantages of patents
- A patent gives you the right to stop others from copying, manufacturing, selling or importing your invention without your permission. See protecting intellectual property.
- You get protection for a pre-determined period, allowing you to keep competitors at bay.
- You can then use your invention yourself.
- Alternatively, you can license your patent for others to use it or you can sell it. This can provide an important source of revenue for your business. Indeed, some businesses exist solely to collect the royalties from a patent they have licensed - perhaps in combination with a registered design and trade mark. See how to license a patent.
If you're considering securing trade mark protection, see benefits of trade mark registration.
Disadvantages of patents
- Your patent application means making certain technical information about your invention publicly available. It might be that keeping your invention secret may keep competitors at bay more effectively.
- Applying for a patent can be a very time-consuming and lengthy process (typically three to four years) - markets may change or technology may overtake your invention by the time you get a patent.
- Cost - it will cost you money whether you are successful or not - the application, searches for existing patents and a patent attorney's fees can all contribute to a reasonable outlay. The potential for making a profit should outweigh the time, effort and money it takes to get and maintain a patent. Not all patents have financial value.
- You'll need to remember to pay your annual fee or your patent will lapse.
- You'll need to be prepared to defend your patent. Taking action against an infringer can be very expensive. On the other hand, a patent can act as a deterrent, making defence unnecessary. Read more about patent protection and enforcement.
Patent costs and marketing considerations
Because patents are territorial, you will only be able to stop competition in the country in which you hold a patent.
If you believe your invention has potential in other countries, and you intend to develop those markets, you will also need to budget for the cost of applying for a patent in your target market., You may be able to offset this cost against the patented item's projected income over the lifetime of the patent. Find more information on applying for a patent in other countries and protecting intellectual property abroad.
Once your patent application has been granted, see how to manage your patents.
Search for existing patents
Before you apply for a patent, you should carry out a comprehensive search on existing patent information. This is to help you determine if your invention:
- is novel and inventive ('prior-art' or novelty search)
- is eligible for patent protection (patentability search)
- infringes on someone else's patent (clearance or freedom to operate search)
See what is a patent.
A patent holder has the right to take legal action against you if you make, use, import or sell a product employing their invention without permission.
Carrying out a patent search
You can search for patent information in specialist or trade magazines or any other relevant literature. You can also use search engines and websites to look for products or ideas that are similar to your invention.
If you cannot find anything that resembles your idea, you may then consider searching through patent documents using online databases.
UK patent search
You can search for patents in the UK using the Intellectual Property Office's (IPO):
- patent information and document service - for registered patents
- patents publication enquiry services - for patent applications
IPO also maintains separate lists for:
To find new UK patent applications and changes to the patent register, check the IPO's patents journal.
European patent search
If you need to search for patents more widely, you can search using Espacenet, a free patent search service developed by the European Patent Office (EPO). It provides access to a database covering the Intellectual Property Office, over 20 European patent offices, as well as the EPO and World Intellectual Property Office.
Worldwide patent search
To search for patents internationally, you should use the World Intellectual Property Organizations' Patentscope service.
If you find that relevant patents or designs exist in the markets you wish to operate it, it is worth seeking legal advice on how best to deal with any potential infringement or licensing issues. It may help to seek advice from a patent attorney.
Penalties for infringement
Infringing someone's patent can be very expensive. If a successful claim is made against you, you can be forced to stop the infringement and pay considerable costs and damages. You will not be able to claim that you weren't aware of the patent as a defence against an infringement claim. See more on patent infringement.
How to apply for a patent
Patent application typically consists of a request for the grant of a patent, a specification of the invention (containing claims and drawings) and an abstract with a summary.
It is possible to apply for a patent on your own. However, patent specifications are legal documents and can be complex. In most cases, it is advisable to seek help from a specialised adviser or find a patent attorney.
Patent application process in the UK
Before applying for a new patent, you should first search for existing patents to make sure that you can protect your invention without infringing on any earlier rights.
After searching, you will have to:
- prepare your patent application
- file your application with the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO)
- request a search from the IPO, typically within 12 months of your filing date
- receive your search report (usually within six months)
At this stage, you can decide to continue with your application or abandon it. If you choose to continue:
- your application will be published 18 months after you file it
- you must ask for a substantive examination no later than six months after publication
- you must respond to comments from IPO's substantive examination
- your application will be granted or refused
You mustn't make your invention public before you apply. You may not be able to patent it if you do. After the IPO publishes your application, you can disclose your invention but you might want to show that you have a 'patent pending' to discourage others from copying it. See marking of patented products.
How to prepare a UK patent application?
If you choose to work with a patent attorney or an IP adviser, they will help you through the application process. However, if you choose to apply on your own, you will have to prepare:
- a written description - to explain your invention in detail and allow others to see how it works and how it could be made
- drawings - to illustrate your description and clarify the nature of your invention
- claims - to define the scope of the invention and set out its distinctive technical features
- an abstract - to summarise the important technical aspects of your invention
See detailed guidance on preparing your patent application documents.
How much does it cost to get a UK patent?
The costs of applying for a UK patent include:
Apply by post
Application (if you pay when you apply)
Application (if you pay later)
£150 (plus £20 for each claim over 25 claims)
£180 (plus £20 for each claim over 25 claims)
£100 (plus £10 for each page of description over 35 pages)
£130 (plus £10 for each page of description over 35 pages)
You can get your application processed more quickly if you file your search and examination requests at the same time as you apply.
You can wait until after you apply to request and pay for your search and examination. You can also wait to pay the application fee but it costs more.
Find more details on patent fees.
You will incur additional costs if you're working with a professional patent adviser or an attorney. Overall, getting a UK patent typically costs around £4,000 and the process usually takes approximately four to five years.
Costs of maintaining the patent
You will need to pay to renew your patent on the fourth anniversary of when you filed for it, and every year after that. You may also need to cover the costs of defending your patent against infringement.
If you wish to file for patents in other countries, you will have to apply for patents abroad.
How to license a patent
Simply owning a patent doesn't necessarily make you rich. To profit from the patent, you must either market the invention, sell your patent or sell the rights to its use.
While selling your patent outright may give you a quick payoff, licensing may typically be a more profitable route for inventors.
How do you license a patent?
By licensing your patent, you keep ownership of your invention, but you give the right to making, using or selling it to someone else. You do this:
- in exchange for royalties
- typically for a set period of time
- under the terms of a licensing agreement
If you own a patent, you can ask the UK Intellectual Property Office to endorse your patent with a licence of right in the register of patents. This means that you agree to licence your patent to anyone who asks. Search for patents with a licence of right.
If you wish to offer your patent to specific individuals or businesses, you could:
- look at manufacturers or potential users of your invention
- attend innovation events or trade shows to promote your product or invention
- advertise your product or patent in industry publications
After you find an interested party, you will usually negotiate any usage rights and royalty payments with the potential licensee as part of your licensing agreement.
What is a patent licensing agreement?
A patent licensing agreement is a legal contract that grants the licensee certain rights regarding the use or sale of your patented invention.
Licensing agreements can be:
- exclusive - giving the licence holder the sole right to exploit the patent
- non-exclusive - where more than one licence holder has the right to exploit the patent
In a typical agreement, you discuss several commercial terms including:
- the subject of agreement - ie a patented process, product or innovation
- the scope of the licence - ie the country or region to which the licence extends
- the royalties - this can be a percentage or fee, fixed or variable
- the duration of the licence - including renewal or early termination terms
- any limitations - eg minimum annual royalty or number of products sold
- obligations and warranties - including responsibility and associated costs of protection renewal, maintaining and enforcing patent rights, etc
Other considerations may include: product or quality control standards, the ability for the licensee to sub-license the rights, any costs in addition to royalties (eg signing costs), compliance with regulations, etc.
Importance of legal advice
If you want to license a patent, it often helps to discuss your options with an intellectual property (IP) adviser or a patent attorney. They can help advise you on contractual matters and help you agree on licensing terms with a potential licensee.
- find a patent attorney near you
- get help from Invest NI's IP advisers
- find licensing or IP consultants in Britain and Ireland
- seek help from international licensing practitioners
If you are looking to license someone else's IP, see buying and licensing other people's patents.
Marking of patented products
In UK law, marking your product to show that it has patent protection isn't required. You do not have to mark your products with patent details if you don't want to.
However, marking gives notice to the public that your product is protected, which may deter potential infringers. Not marking your products could also limit the amount of damages you may be able to recover if someone infringes your patent.
If you choose to mark your product, you must do so carefully. Marking a product with incorrect patent details may potentially give rise to third-party claims or fines.
What is patent marking?
Patent marking involves labelling your product with information about patent or patents that cover it. You can mark either a package or a product itself. The marking must include:
- the word 'patent' or 'patented'
- the patent number
- the country of patent application
If you have applied for a patent but the patent has not yet been issued, you may use the term 'patent pending'. Marking your product as 'patent pending' shows that you are pursuing protection for it. It doesn't infer the scope of protection or guarantee that the patent will be issued.
Risks of false marking
Patent marking that is incorrect is considered 'false marking'. Marking can be incorrect in a number of ways, including:
- if the indicated patent doesn't cover the product
- if the patent has expired
- if the patent doesn't cover the territory where the marked product is being sold
To benefit from the legal provisions related to marking, the marking must be substantial, continuous and up-to date. Remember that patents expire or could be abandoned. If you sell your product worldwide, you may need to customise the marking for different countries.
If you fail to update your marking, any third party may be able to raise claims of false marking.
Webmarking of patented products
From 1 October 2014, you can mark your product with a web address rather than the patent number and country. This is known as 'webmarking' or 'virtual marking'.
You can use webmarking in lieu of an actual patent marking on the product or package. The web address should point to a webpage where you clearly associate the product with the relevant patent number. You should keep this page up-to-date, reflecting any changes to the patent details for each of your products.
QR codes and virtual patent marking
If you use QR (quick response) codes on your products, be aware that these should not replace webmarking. While QR code is 'an address', it is machine-readable and therefore cannot provide all members of the public with notice of the relevant patent rights. If you wish to have a scannable mark, you can affix your textual web address with a QR code.
For more information, see detailed guidance on webmarking.
Patent protection and enforcement
Patent holders are responsible for identifying cases of infringement and enforcing their own rights. If you own a patent, you should pay close attention to the market, to competing products and services, and to any possible unlawful use of your patented invention.
What is patent infringement?
Patent infringement happens when a third party uses, sells, manufactures or imports patented products or technology without the permission from the patent owner. For infringement to occur, the prohibited activity also has to happen:
- while the patent is valid
- within the country where the patent is in force
If you have a valid patent and suspect that someone stole or copied your invention, you can bring an enforcement action in court to prevent future infringement and/or seek damages.
Resolving patent disputes out of court
Many cases of infringement occur unintentionally. If you suspect infringement, it may be worth taking a considered approach to resolve the issues amicably or settle out of court. You can:
- send a cease-and-desist letter to the infringing party outlining your legal position
- negotiate a licensing agreement - see how to license a patent
An IP adviser or a patent attorney can help you analyse the situation and suggest the best course of action for resolving patent disputes.
If you are unable to settle the issue informally, there are two alternatives available:
- mediation - the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) offers IP mediation services
- patent opinion service - the IPO can issue an impartial opinion on validity or infringement of patents
Although the opinion is not binding, it can help to resolve issues without going to court. Read about the patent opinions service.
Patent infringement action
If you are unable to reach an agreement out of court, you can try to resolve disputes through civil law litigation. This should usually be a last resort. Litigation costs can be prohibitively high and you will have the burden of proving infringement.
There are no specialised patent courts in Northern Ireland. To initiate legal proceedings, you can file a claim either through the IPO or through the Chancery Division of the High Court in Northern Ireland (if your claim is complex or valuable). You can file some type of proceedings only through one or the other.
Find out how to file proceedings at the IPO.
Remedies for patent infringement
Successful patent enforcement action usually results in one of two legal remedies:
- an injunction to stop infringing activities
- monetary damages award which can be substantial
The court will typically expect you to have tried alternative means of dispute resolution before pursuing litigation. Read more about patent infringement.
Bringing an action for patent infringement is complicated. If you need to enforce your patent rights, you should seek professional or legal assistance. Find a patent attorney near you.