A patent is - like all intellectual property - a territorial right to control the use of an invention. Each sovereign state may, subject to any desire to meet treaty obligations, make any rules they like for a patent to be valid, so no universal advice can be given. This article will cover the nature of patents in the UK, and their relationship to the European Patent application process.

What you get

The issue of a UK patent grants the holder the right to determine the use throughout the UK of the technology covered by the patent to the extent that they may control the use of things employing the technology. This right lasts for a maximum of 20 years. The patent is a piece of property, and may be transferred or licensed as the patent-holder decides.

European Patents

The European Patent Convention establishes a uniform process for patent applications throughout the territory of the signatories. Each application must list the countries in which it is hoped that patents will be issued, and a successful application results in the separate issue of a patent in each of those countries, granting the exact privileges of, and subject to, the law of that country. The convention has been signed by most members of the EEA, and a few others besides. Fortunately, the criteria for the issue of a patent in the UK is currently identical to that applied by the European Patent Office. (This is not coincidental: there are a number of European Community Directives to ensure this.)

How do I get one?

You file an application detailing the background to the invention: the state of the art prior to your invention, the nature of your invention, what it adds to the state of the art that was previously missing, and any details necessary to use the invention; finally it must contain a statement of the "claims" of the patent.

Claims delimit the boundary of what the patent covers. These claims are a series of properties of the invention: if any technology has all of the properties, then it is covered by the patent. The claims must be interpreted "constructively", which is to say with regard to what they would mean to "a man skilled in the art" (where the art is whatever field the invention is in: it may be agricultural equipment, medicine, lady shaving, or whatever else is appropriate), so in a claim involving a "vertical strut" would mean a strut that sticks far up more than it sticks out, rather than one that is absolutely perpendicular to the ground, if that makes no material difference to the nature of the technology. That is to say, if the cleverness is that the strut stick up, then even things which are not perfectly vertical will be covered, while an invention that requires perfect verticality, will not give rise to rights in inventions which have required some new cleverness to allow broadly verticallity.

On a practical note, you will be unlikely to succeed in your application unless you employ a decent patent agent.

Oooooooh, somebody stop me!

Before a patent can be granted it must be examined to determine whether or not the application meets the necessary critera. In the UK High Court or the Patents County Court may may hear actions to have a patent struck off the register, or to determine compensation for the infringement of a patent.


The invention must be something new, and it must not be obvious to a "man skilled in the art". The invention must strictly not have been disclosed to anyone before application.


The invention must be capable of industrial exploitation. Inventions that cannot be used in some productive pursuit may not be patented. This primarily operates to limit the system to functional, rather than aesthetic, inventions.

Not excluded

Certain inventions, although novel and valuable may not be patented: Computer programs, algorithms, mathematical inventions, methods of doing business, methods of playing games, or "methods of thought" are all excluded.