28 August 2016

Patent or No Patent

Jane Lambert

In IP's not just for Big Brands and High Tech Businesses 27 Aug 2016 NIPC News I wrote:
"In my career at the Bar I have known far more businesses that have failed from having too much IP than too little. Some of those failures had been caused by patents that cost many thousands of pounds to obtain but could never be worked. Others by disputes that were abandoned because the rights owner (who in many cases had a strong claim) simply ran out of money."
I appreciate that observation probably goes against everything that you have been told by your accountant, bank manager, business adviser, your patent agent and your peers but that does not make it any less true. You take a risk and commit yourself to considerable expense which you may never recover whenever you apply for a patent. So think long and hard before you take that step.

What are the Risks and Costs of Patenting?

In order to get a patent for an invention you have to "disclose the invention in a manner which is clear enough and complete enough for the invention to be performed by a person skilled in the art" (see s.14 (3) of the Patents Act 1977).  If you don;t do that, the Intellectual Property Office or a judge may take that patent away from you under s.72 (1) (c) of that same Act.  So the first risk is that you tell the world, including potential competitors in countries where you do not seek patent protection, how to make or use your invention. If your invention is any good that is precisely what they will do, The only thing stopping them is whatever patent protection you may be granted around the world and your ability to enforce that protection through civil proceedings in the English and other courts.

Before you apply for a patent you can rely on the law of confidence to prevent anyone to whom you may disclose the invention in confidence, such as angels, consultants, contractors, designers, manufacturers and others, from making use of the invention or disclosing it to third parties for so long as the invention is secret (see Trade Secrets FAQ  24 Aug 2016 NIPC News). You lose that protection as soon as your application is published because your invention becomes public knowledge.  Losing the protection of the law of confidence is the second risk that you run. Moreover, it could be argued that you disclaim all other IP rights, such as unregistered design rights,  when you apply for a patent because you dedicate your invention to the public. The would be another risk.

There is no guarantee that you will get a patent and if, you do get one, there is always the risk that it may be taken away if it is found that the invention had already been invented, that it was obvious in the light if previous inventions or some other reason.  If the IPO decides not to grant you a patent or the IPO or a court decides to take it away all the money that you will have spent on searches. professional fees, payments to the IPO or other patent offices and so on goes down the plughole. That is yet another risk.

Now for the costs.

A patent attorney will charge you several thousand pounds for preparing a patent application just for the IPO or European Patent Office ("EPO").  If you want to apply for patent protection in other countries it will cost you many times more.   Although it is not compulsory to instruct a patent attorney you are strongly advised to do so. Attorneys are trained to draft specifications in such a way as to claim a sufficient monopoly to make the invention commercially viable but not so broad as to render it invalid.  That's a great skill to have and that is why attorneys need good natural science, engineering or technology degrees to do their job as well as years of legal training.  It is possible for a reasonably intelligent and well educated lay person to apply for his or her own design registration or even a trade mark successfully but it us very rare indeed for a lay person to draft a satisfactory patent application.

If you are short of money it is very tempting to apply for a patent for the UK alone and ignore the world outside. The problem with ignoring the rest of the world is that your competitors outside the UK will then be free to make and sell your invention everywhere else and you won't get a bean. You may comfort yourself with the thought that the UK is the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world for time being. That may be true but compared to the USA, China, Japan or indeed the rest of the EU number 6 {or even number 5} is not all that big.  If you are going to confine your monopoly to the UK make sure that there is a sufficient market in this country to make money from your invention.

Your expenditure does not stop on obtaining the grant. Every year for the life of the patent you have to pay renewal fees to the IPO and other patent offices just to keep the patent alive.  In many countries those renewal fees increase during the term. You have to watch out for potential infringements and if the patent is infringed you may have to take legal proceedings to prevent the infringement.  That is the biggest cost and risk of them all because it can cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds to pursue an infringer in a common law country like England or the United States and anything up to 50,000 euro even in civil law countries like France or Germany.

You and your backers need to be pretty sure that your invention is a real money spinner before taking those risks and incurring those costs.

What are the Alternatives to Patenting?

Essentially keeping your invention under wraps and relying on the law of confidence to stop unauthorized use or further disclosure (see Understanding Trade Secrecy and Confidentiality 23 July 2016). That can work very well if your product cannot easily be reverse engineered once it is put on the market which is  the case with beverages like Coca Cola or Chatreuse (see Trade Secrets FAQ 24 Aug 2016). The problem is that most technical secrets can be ascertained by buying a product and taking it apart and analysing it or discovered through parallel research.  In the absence of a patent there is nothing to be done to prevent reverse engineering or parallel research. Indeed, the functioning of a free market depends on it.

In the UK a technical design may be protected from copying for up to 10 years by unregistered design right, an almost uniquely British IP right.  That would include the shape of equipment or the arrangement of its electronic or mechanical components but design right would not protect the technology as such. If a competitor makes a similar product without copying the protected design he is quite free to make and market it in the UK. Moreover, anyone in the world including an infringer is entitled to apply for a licence to reproduce a design as of right for the last 5 years of the design right term.

Design right law is used to protect semiconductor topographies in the UK with a number of amendments that permit citizens of countries outside the EU to apply for protection and give a longer term.

Computer programs are protected from copying for the life of the author plus 70 years by literary copyright and the source code of a program can be a trade secret so long as it is not disclosed.

The advantages of confidentiality, copyright and design rights are that they are all free but they provide only limited protection. However, that may be long enough for a business to establish itself in the market and build up a reputation which would give it a competitive advantage. For many businesses that is all that is required. The big disadvantage is that the protection is much less extensive than the monopoly that only a patent can offer.

So how do I choose between a Patent or No Patent?

Here are my tips.

  1. Remember that the purpose of IP is to protect income streams and not to protect clever technology just for the sake of it.  
  2. Referring to your business plan try to identify the main income streams for your business over the business planning period.
  3. Consider all the possible threats to those income streams. I don't mind betting that a large number of those will be commercial rather than legal such as new products based on different technologies or demand for the product drying up because of changing market conditions.
  4. Think about possible counter-measures to those threats. In many cases those counter-measures will be commercial too such as reducing your prices or improving your product. Only in a  few cases will you need a legal remedy,
  5. Where you do need a legal remedy consider all the alternatives such as design right and confidentiality. Choose the one that gives you the most cost-effective protection over the business planning period. In some cases that may be a patent but in many other cases it will not.
  6. Unless you expect your earnings to grow substantially, take out intellectual property insurance or make other arrangements to fund enforcement litigation.
If you want to discuss this article, call me on 020 7404 5252 during office hours or send me a message through my contact form.

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