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What are patents?

Written by Tim Mount on 21 February 2010

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What is a patent? A patent is a state provided monopoly over an invention. A patent provides the owner of the patent with the exclusive right to make, sell, offer for sale and export a product incorporating the invention that the patent describes.

A patent starts with an application. This must be filed with a government body responsible for granting patents in the relevant state. In the UK this is the Intellectual Property Office, in Europe it is the European Patent Office. The application must essentially describe the invention but to be counted and receive a date. This date is known as the filing date and if the first application, the priority date.

A priority date is the relevant date for search and examination purposes. This means that the invention must be new and original as of that date. The filing date is the date from which the clock starts. A date needs to be renewed yearly from the third year but can last for 20 years from the filing date.

A patent application is essentially specifies what the invention is. This specification describes the invention in a few paragraphs which explain the invention and how it might be embodied, i.e. forms which the invention might take.

The specification also perhaps contains a few pictures or figures which typically have features that are numbered and described in more detail. Again, these are pictures of embodiments, that is to say they are not pictures of the invention, they are pictures of the way the invention may be used in a product.

There are certain formalities that must be followed in the format of the figures, but the initial figures can be hand-drawn sketches, and they will not need formalising for some time.

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