HTC was forced to stop selling its One Mini phone in the UK after a legal ruling that it infringed Nokia's patent rights covering text and voice messages.

As this case shows, patents are powerful and potentially very valuable things, but obtaining one is not straightforward. The word "patent" is often bandied around in the technology sector not always accurately, so what exactly are they?

What is a patent?

A patent is a monopoly right which is granted to protect an invention in exchange for details of that invention being made available on a public register. The idea being to reward investment in innovation whilst ensuring that others can benefit from the patent when the period of protection has lapsed.

What can be protected?

A patent can be obtained for inventions which are new, involve an inventive step and are capable of industrial application. There are, however, a number of exceptions to what can be patented. This includes scientific theories, mathematical methods, methods of doing business and certain computer programs.

Particularly relevant to the technology sector is the position on computer programs and software. Software is generally not patentable under UK law, although the position is slightly different in the US and other jurisdictions. It may therefore be advisable to apply for a patent abroad if the software will be marketed extensively outside the UK.

What is the procedure for obtaining a patent?

It is necessary to file an application with the relevant Patent Office in the country where protection is sought, although there are various international application routes which can be used to obtain protection in a number of countries in a more cost-effective way. The strength and value of a patent will largely depend on the quality of the application so it is advisable to instruct a qualified patent attorney to assist with the application procedure.

If you are considering applying for a patent, it is important to keep the invention confidential until the application has been filed. Once filed, you will then have 12 months, during which you can use, disclose and demonstrate the invention to third parties before deciding whether to pursue the application process.

What is the benefit of holding a patent?

Once granted, a patent will give the owner a 20 year monopoly over the invention concerned. This can be exploited by preventing competitors using the same technology (even where this has been independently developed), or by licensing the patented technology to others in return for payment.

Conclusions

While obtaining a patent can be a long an expensive process, the commercial advantages cannot be understated. Having a strong patent portfolio can be an important way of gaining a competitive edge in the market and it can add significant value to your business. This is particularly important for companies in the technology sector looking to gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive industry.

  • At Stevens & Bolton LLP Tom Lingard advises his technology clients on all aspects of intellectual property and technology law. He has extensive litigation experience having represented clients in proceedings before all levels of the UK courts; He also regularly advises business on the protection, exploitation and management of IP and technology