The modern three-point seat belt was patented by Swedish Inventor Nils Bohlinfor Volvo after working on ejector seats for Saab (US Patent 3043625). Volvo then made the patent open so that other car companies could increase safety for all, for free.
Can you patent it?
“I know, I’ll patent it!” you cry, but can you? There are some things that are patentable but some things that definitely aren’t. If you have made a new plant (or animal) for instance, made a new scientific discovery, or come up with a new theory or method, for mathematics too, then you’re out of luck. In fact, even if that theory is a new way of doing business, playing a game or doing something in your head then again, you can’t patent it anymore than you could patent percentages as a way of estate agents charging you extra for selling your home.
Some computer programs and the presentation of existing information are also definitely out. So, it’s no good saying you have reinvented the timing board at Monaco to include the drivers favourite colour or a computer program which calculates percentages, for example, for estate agents. Medical treatment and diagnosis are out too: if you were able, for example, to patent physiotherapy, then you could prevent millions from getting treatment which is just daft. In that vein, anything in fact against public policy or morality is also out. So, a robot which identified Piers Morgan and shot him on sight would clearly be a no-no. Finally literary and artistic works don’t suit either (but have a look at copyright instead.)
"...a robot which identified Piers Morgan and shot him on sight would clearly be a no-no."
You’ll now need to demonstrate that your idea is new, contains an inventive step (which is not obvious to someone with a bit of knowledge on the subject) and is actually capable of being made or used. Good luck with building that sky rocket powered by cheese. If successful, your patent will protect you in relation to how it actually works, what function it performs and how, and also the application and choice of materials in its construction.
When you come to filing a patent you’ll need to check that noone has already come up with the idea (often known as ‘prior art’). Once your application is filed, you are protected from that date and you can then tell everyone that you have a patent pending (bearing in mind of course that there is a risk it may not be granted). Make sure you don’t use that term before you actually have filed it: it is a criminal offence.
What use is a patent?
Once you have it, you can just frame it and put in up in your downstairs loo if you like, but if it actually is going to offer you any protection, if someone else does try to nick your patented idea for example, you will need to either sue them for damages, or licence the use of it to them or even sell it to them. So have a think first. Bear in mind that it will only last for 5 years initially but you can renew it for up to 20 years. So don’t just file and forget – the clock is ticking.
So, that’s the UK, what about the rest of the world?
Well, you have a number of options. You can file patents in all of the other countries that you wish to protect yourself in. Mmm…Fear not, there is a convention, the Paris Convention: if you file your patent in one of those Convention countries you can file all over again in anyone of the other countries who signed it and if you do it within 12 months, you’ll be protected from the date of that first file. So, file one, then get a year’s protection to decide what you want to do and file multiple times in other countries. (Yes, the UK is one, for a full list see here.) Finally, and it's much simpler, you can file a single international application in your local office in the UK, under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and you will be protected in over 140 countries. In an oddity of the law you can use the Paris Convention to claim that the date you are protected from be the day you first filed your national patent, as the priority date when filing the PCT. So, file in the UK and then your are protected from that date for up to 12 months if you want to spread your wings under a PCT application.
You’ll need advice about structuring your application and we can help keep those costs to a minimum (as long as you help too!) but the application fees are not insignificant. For the PCT the international filing fee is calculated in Swizz Francs but is a little over £900 and the search fee will vary from about £260 to £1600 per patent unless you are entitled for a reduction (applied to some countries for both legal and natural persons of up to 90% - Bermuda here we come!).
However, some good news if you have not quite decided how far to spread your wings: the cost in the UK for the application (not the legal advice in drafting it) is under £280, with renewal fees of £70 rising to £200 for the 20th year.
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