Encouraging innovation through intellectual property rights

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In a rapidly changing competitive environment knowledge has become the basis for organisations to develop advantages. When individuals create new products or processes they need protection from competitors so that they gain the most benefits from their ideas. The UK Patent Office provides enterprising people with reassurance and support for their ideas and inventions. This framework of protection has been in place since 1852.

The word ‘patent’ comes from the practice of monarchs in the Middle Ages giving rights and privileges by means of ‘open letters’. These were documents authorised with the royal seal open to inspection by anyone. The word patent has evolved from the Latin name for these open letters - ‘litterae patentes’.

The earliest English patent was granted to John of Utynam in 1449. This provided a monopoly for a method of making stained glass previously unknown in England. Under Elizabeth I and James I the granting of monopolies for particular commodities became increasingly subject to abuse. In 1624 the Statute of Monopolies incorporated the doctrine of public interest. This meant that patents would only be granted for ‘projects of new invention so they be not contrary to the law nor mischievous to the State’.

For the next two hundred years the English patent system developed through the work of lawyers and judges in the courts without government regulation. However, by the mid-nineteenth century it had become inefficient and people were starting to demand reforms. The Patent Office was set up in 1852 as the United Kingdom’s only office allowed to grant patents of invention. The Patent Office took responsibility for industrial designs in 1875 and in 1876 a system providing registration of Trade Marks was launched.

The Patent Office grants patents, registered designs and trade marks, effective in the UK only. Patents are granted to individuals and companies who can lay claim to a new product or manufacturing process or to an improvement of existing ones, not previously known in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.

The granting of the patent gives the owner the right to stop others from making, using or selling the invention without his permission for a period of up to 20 years. Under the terms of the European Patent Convention (E.P.C.) inventors in states which have joined the Convention can also obtain patent rights in all the E.P.C. countries by filing a single application at the European Patent Office.

This case study demonstrates how protecting intellectual property through the services of the Patent Office can benefit businesses and inventors.

 Intellectual property

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Intellectual property rights refer to all types of protection such as patents, registered designs and design right, registered trade marks and copyright.

A patent is a monopoly right to the exclusive use of an invention. This could be a new product or process, for example, Hovis patented a new method of milling to preserve the wheat germ in its bread. In the UK a patent lasts for a maximum period of 20 years. To keep it in force during this period annual renewal fees have to be paid after the fourth year.

Registered designs and design right protect the appearance of an article, i.e. its shape and/or surface pattern. Examples are Plysu registering new designs for products such as milk bottles and oil cans or Sony registering a new mini-disc design. Registered designs exist for up to 25 years. Design right comes into operation automatically and the protection period is shorter.

Trade marks are the signs which distinguish the goods and services of one trader from another, e.g. Adidas and Nike. A registered trade mark ensures that only the company or its licensees may sell the product under that trade mark. Initially they last for 10 years but can be renewed indefinitely. Registered trade marks give stronger protection than unregistered marks. If a trade mark is unregistered the producer can still protect his product but he has to prove his case by meeting two strict requirements. These are:

  • that the trade mark has an established reputation
  • that the public could be confused or deceived by the use being complained of.

Copyright gives rights to the creators of original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work e.g. films, videos, computer programmes, and compact discs. There is no registration system in the United Kingdom; it comes into operation automatically. However owners must prove that the legal rights are theirs. Copyright enables creators to reap the rewards of their efforts; without it they may be unwilling to produce new material, e.g. musicians and their record companies.

The different types of intellectual property rights can be used together to offer a high degree of protection. For example the inventors of the board game Scrabble protected their product initially with patents and registered designs. They then further protected their business interests by registering the word 'Scrabble' as a trade mark.

The applications dealt with by the Patent Office provide a unique insight into the economic and social development of the United Kingdom. Trade mark applications reflect shifts in fashion and taste. The changing nature of the goods for which trade marks are registered provides a guide to patterns of trade. For instance, the numbers of applications for trade marks of tobacco products are falling, whereas those for pharmaceuticals and electrical goods are increasing.

 Obtaining a patent file application

The process of obtaining a patent file application covers several stages over a period of time.

Within 12 months, a file search request and one or more claims must be submitted. The claim must state the exact nature of the monopoly that the patent, if granted, will protect.

At this point a search will be carried out by the Patent Office to establish:

  • Is the invention new? It must not have been made public anywhere in the world before the date of the application
  • Does it involve an inventive step? It must involve an inventive step which would not be obvious to someone with a good knowledge and experience of the subject
  • Does it have an industrial application? The invention must be able to be made or used
  • Is the invention ‘excluded’? An invention is not patentable if it is a theory, artistic creation, a new method of medical treatment, or will promote offensive, immoral or anti-social behaviour

The patent application then will be published.

Within 6 months, a file examination request will be made. The patent application will be subject to a thorough investigation to ensure that it meets all of the conditions laid down by law. If it fulfils all of these criteria the patent will be granted.

The number of patent applications per year demonstrates the health of the economy: the more applications, the more innovative and progressive the economy. The nature of the applications reflects developments in technology and, potentially, shifts in the concerns of industry and the economy.

There have also been recent applications concerned with the treatment of vehicle exhaust fumes and the removal of pollutants. The rapid increase in mobile communications has meant that there is much UK patent activity in this area, which would echo growth in this sector of the economy.

 Supporting Business

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The Patent Office, including the Trade Marks and Designs Registries, fosters industry and commerce within a secure and disciplined framework. Growth in these areas is dependent upon the creativity of the inventor, the investment necessary to develop and establish new ideas, plus the ability to market them effectively.

Intellectual property rights play an important part in bringing these various factors together. They give legal recognition to the ownership of new ideas or brand names and give owners the right to stop others exploiting their property. They protect innovators so that they can benefit from their efforts.

Patents provide monopoly rights for a period of time. This encourages inventors and businesses to take on the risks of developing new products and processes. It is only by being the sole supplier of a product for a number of years or by licensing others, that an investor may see profit. The patent system ensures that the details of the invention are made public, thereby promoting the development of technological skills and knowledge throughout the economy.

Patent specifications are a vital source of both technical and commercial information which can help companies maintain their competitive edge. They help companies reduce the level of repetition, minimise the risk of infringing others’ rights, gain inspiration, solve technical problems and keep an eye on competitors’ activities.

Trade marks and design registration protect the owner from unfair competition, e.g. through piracy. Trade marks are often the single most valuable tool a company will have, as they protect the goodwill and reputation of the firm and its products. A company may go to court to ensure that other companies do not pass off their goods and services as those of the company entitled to the reputation in the trade mark. Product design may be crucial for the market success or failure of the product regardless of its other attributes.

 An intellectual property case study - Ted Prosser

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Many inventions occur by accident.

Ted Prosser, whilst decorating a house, fell off a plank, and dragged his fingers through a solution that he was working with.

When he looked up he noticed a limed oak wood effect had been created on the wall.He wondered whether he could reproduce it as a quick and easy method to create a wood effect for the Do-It-Yourself market.

This led him to approach the Patent Office and he now has two patents, one for the paint process and one for the graining tool that is used. His invention is now the biggest selling wood-care product in the United Kingdom.


The Patent Office is responsible for the establishment and maintenance of the national framework of intellectual property rights. It also represents the United Kingdom’s interests in the development of international intellectual property rights systems.

The main objectives of the Patent Office are to:

  • grant intellectual property rights • promote and supervise moves to modernise and simplify the law on intellectual property
  • work towards the harmonisation of international rules and procedures
  • raise awareness of British industry and business to the opportunities provided by intellectual property to enhance their profitability and competitiveness
  • ensure the academic community are aware of the potential rewards for exploitation of research
  • provide services that combine quality with good value for money.

A healthy business environment is one where original ideas flourish and turn into business opportunities. The Government’s white paper on competitiveness has emphasised the importance of knowledge at the heart of competitive activity. The Patent Office gives confidence to enterprising people in the business sector by providing protection against copying for their original ideas.