What is a patent? (With types and how to apply for one)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Patents are important for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is that they allow inventors to protect their creations from being copied. Patents also help inventors make money from their ideas and encourage other creators to come up with new innovations. They're typically used by entrepreneurs looking to kick-start their start-ups and by established businesses. In this article, we look at what a patent is, what the different types of patents are, how to apply for one, what happens if the application is successful and what the benefits are of having one.

What is a patent?

The answer to 'What is a patent?' is that it's a right granted by the government to an inventor for their invention. It allows the creator to stop other people from using their invention for a specific period. It also has a dual purpose in that it gives the owner of the patent the ability to sue anyone who uses their invention without permission. Patents are specifically governed by:

  • The Patent Act 1977

  • The Patent Co-operation Treaty (PCT) Agreement Act 1999 in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

  • The Patents (Life Sciences) Act 2004 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Related: How much does a patent attorney make and what do they do?

What are the different types of patents?

Common types of patents include:

Utility patents

A utility patent is used to protect an invention. This means they're most often used to protect inventions that are useful in some way and the individuals or companies that apply for them. Utility patents are especially useful because they give you a monopoly on your invention. That means no one else can use it without your permission. This type of patent also gives the individual/organisation applying for it the opportunity to license it out to other companies. They may decide to do this because of a significant financial incentive.

Related: Examples of monopoly: definition, types and importance

Design patents

A design patent protects the design of a product. It's useful because it can prevent imitation of the design, which can be important for companies that manufacture unique products. The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) typically issue design patents to protect new designs from other companies or individuals. To qualify, it's necessary for the design to be original or novel enough to warrant protection. This means if it's been previously used, it's not eligible for protection via a design patent.

Plant patents

Plant patents are a form of intellectual property protection. This means they're used to protect new plant varieties from being either copied or otherwise reproduced without permission. A plant patent lasts for 20 years and protects all plants similar to the original plant in question. Though, it may also be possible to obtain a plant patent if you have a genetically modified version of an existing plant. The process of obtaining one is relatively straightforward. When granted, it means individuals and businesses are able to sell their new variety without fear of losing profits due to copiers.

Related: 13 jobs with plants (with definitions and responsibilities)

Provisional applications for patent protection

Provisional applications for patent protection are useful because they allow an individual or a business to secure an early filing date for their invention. The provisional application is usually the first step in the process of securing a patent, but it does not guarantee the successful receiving of a patent. A provisional application is valid for 12 months from the date filed with the IPO, which often gives individuals and/or businesses time to perfect their inventions. It also gives them time to decide whether they want to go ahead by applying for a full patent.

How to apply for a patent

You can apply for a patent by following these steps:

1. Create a written description of the creation and how it works

It's important for businesses to include a written description of the creation and how it works. You can typically accomplish this by creating a detailed summary that includes the purpose of the invention, how it works and any benefits it has. It's key that this is clear, concise and easy to understand, so it highlights the key features of the invention and how they make it unique. The written description also contains an explanation of why the business wants its product patented. This may include details about what initially inspired them to start development.

2. Draft a claim

A claim is a statement of the purpose of an invention. Its aim is to describe the invention in such a way that it gives the inventor protection from anyone else who might want to make or use the invention. It's necessary to be as specific as possible, but this claim can also be broad enough to cover all possible variations on the invention. To draft a claim that's both specific and broad, consider these tips:

  • Ensure the claims are clear and concise by avoiding vague terms or phrases. Write out specific words, such as a computer system.

  • Use language that indicates what makes your invention different from other similar inventions, such as a computer system with a touchscreen display.

  • Ensure each claim explains exactly how you can use your invention, don't describe how others could use it if they wanted to copy it. For instance, a method for playing video games on a computer system.

  • Use active voice when describing how an invention works or what it does, for instance, vaporising liquid substances into mist rather than stating that something happened.

3. Draft an abstract

The abstract is the first paragraph of a patent application. It's important as it tells the patent office what the invention is, what the problem is, why the business needs the patent and how the patent is going to solve this. This means it has to be easy to comprehend. It's typically beneficial for abstracts to include:

  • a statement of what the invention is (what do they claim)

  • a statement of what problem it solves (how does it work)

  • a brief description of how it works (the structure or method)

4. Write an application

It's key for businesses to write their application in a way that's going to convince the patent office to grant them the rights to their invention. The first step is to ensure their application is complete and accurate. This means providing all relevant information about the invention and how it works.

Also, include any prior art that has been published or patented so the patent office can determine whether the invention is truly unique/original. This gives the patent office additional insight, which can increase the likelihood of a successful patent. Businesses can also apply for patents by filing an 'abandoned application'. This means they've abandoned their attempt at obtaining a patent, but they still want to retain some of their rights under certain circumstances.

5. Pay the IPO application fee

Businesses and entrepreneurs are typically expected to pay an application fee to the IPO when applying for a patent because they're essentially investing in their product. The patent application process can take several months and often sees them also paying to cover their legal fees and other costs associated with the development of that product. Paying an application fee is a way for businesses and entrepreneurs to ensure they have access to IPO's resources, which are essential for protecting your product's intellectual property. This payment is also required by law.

Related: 8 different types of entrepreneurs (with examples)

What happens if a patent is successful?

If a business's patent is successful, it may stop competitors from using the product or the design IPO decided to patent. The company or the entrepreneur can also use the patent to create a monopoly and charge high prices for their products. For example, if someone created an invention that was able to allow people to play video games by pressing buttons on their phone instead of using a controller, another company could not sell their own version of this product. This is because it's considered patent infringement.

Related: What are the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs?

What are the benefits of having a patent?

Having a patent can be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it provides exclusive rights to the inventor to make, use, sell or import their invention for a limited time. Other benefits include:

  • The patent process allows inventors to protect their idea from competitors.

  • Having a patent can help attract investors and increase sales of the product.

  • Filing for patent protection can help establish credibility for a new business because it shows they're serious about developing an idea into a marketable product or service.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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