Staying ahead of the competition and innovating are key elements to the success of any business.
Without innovation, it's only a matter of time before your rivals leave you behind and your business quickly becomes yesterday’s news.
For many, research and development (R&D) is the answer. However, it's often an expensive and time-consuming process. With this cost and effort in mind, protecting the resulting breakthroughs should be a priority for any business.
At the start of any R&D project, businesses should decide what type of intellectual property (IP) protection is appropriate, whether to register the rights and who will own them. IP protection falls into four main categories:
- patents (for inventions)
- copyright (for creative works)
- trade marks (for brands)
- designs (for appearance)
Patents, designs, copyright and trade marks all have different advantages but cover different aspects of innovation or inventiveness.
Patents vs trade secrets
Most businesses instantly think of patents if they've developed a new product or process. Patents protect these developments but by filing a patent your technology will be published (usually at 18 months). This gives anyone access to how your invention works. So, although you get a limited monopoly on your invention for 20 years, you're allowing everyone including competitors to see a detailed description of how it works.
Would a trade secret be better? After all, a trade secret such as the recipe for Coca-Cola can potentially last forever. Can the product or process be reverse engineered, can confidentiality agreements be maintained?
These are decisions that a company needs to make. Filing patents however, can alert potential investors to the invention and also deter would be infringers.
Filing Patents & Collaboration
If you decide to patent your invention, the first thing to remember is that your application must be filed before the invention is disclosed. Before filing, a strict policy of secrecy should be applied and you should use confidentiality agreements.
To ensure you get the right advice, it's often best to consult a patent attorney. They can devise a strategy for protecting your invention in the UK and overseas. A patent attorney will also draft your application to give the broadest protection. They will also prepare the documents so they are technically and legally correct.
Many R&D projects require collaboration, using the skills and facilities of other parties, either businesses or universities. If you are thinking of undertaking collaborative research with a university, the UK IPO has developed a set of agreements. The Lambert agreements cover the ownership, financial, and other contributions made by the commercial partner. The agreements also include the use of the results for academic purposes.
Look before you leap
Patents are also a great source of technical information. Businesses have access to millions of patent documents giving full disclosure of the invention. Often, this technology is free to use as the patent has expired, been withdrawn or lapsed.
It's often said that a lot of R&D is wasted because the technology is already available in a patent document. So, before investing large amounts of money in research projects, why not search the free patents database, Espacenet. This can give you an early idea of whether the technology is worth pursuing further and whether investment should be made. But remember, patent searching is a specialist art and can benefit from using a patent attorney.