The UK Patents Act 1977 establishes a new law of patents applicable to future patents and applications for patents, amends the law of patents applicable to existing patents and applications for patents and gives effect to certain international conventions on patents.
The Patents Act 1977 is the main patent law in the UK. It sets out the legal rights and duties for UK patents and patent applications, and how UK law relates to the European Patent Convention (EPC) and the Patent Co-operation Treaty (PCT). Later laws, including the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, The Regulatory Reform (Patents) Order 2004, and the Patents Act 2004 have changed the 1977 Act.
What is a patent?
A patent is an intellectual property right, granted by a country’s government as a territorial right for a limited period. Patent rights make it illegal for anyone except the owner or someone with the owner’s permission to make, use, import or sell the invention in the country where the patent was granted. As long as renewal fees are paid every year, a UK patent has a life of 20 years and provides protection throughout the UK, but no further.
Can a UK patent protect an invention in another country?
No, a UK patent only gives the owner rights within the UK. For protection overseas, you need to apply to patent offices in individual countries or through the international patent system, known as the Patent Co-operation Treaty (PCT). Or, you can get patent protection in most European countries by filing an application under the European Patent Convention (EPC).
The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) can offer advice on completing EPC and PCT applications, but applying overseas can be both complicated and costly so we advise anyone deciding to take this route to get professional advice from a patent attorney.
Who can own a patent?
The owner can be the inventor, the inventor’s employer or someone else who has got the patent rights. If you made your invention while employed by someone else, even if it was in your own time, ask a lawyer to check your employment circumstances carefully as your employer may have some rights to your invention.
What kind of things do patents cover?
Patents generally cover products or processes that contain ‘new’ functional or technical aspects. They are concerned with:
- how things work;
- how they are made; or
- what they are made of.
Is your idea a secret?
By far the most common mistake made by people new to the world of patents is to reveal their invention too early.
If you reveal your invention in any way – by word of mouth, demonstration, advertisement, article in a journal or any other way – before you apply for a patent, you are making your invention public. This could mean that you lose the possibility of being granted a patent.
Beware who you talk to
If you feel the need to talk to someone before you apply, such as a potential business partner, you should ask them to sign a confidentiality agreement before you talk to them. This means they have to treat what you tell them in confidence. A solicitor or patent attorney can prepare this type of agreement for you. Any conversation you have with patent attorneys, solicitors or our staff is confidential, so anything you say will not count as revealing your invention early.
During the application process, you may be contacted by an invention promotion company. If you are, be very careful what you agree to.
The basis of a UK patent is a legal document called a ‘specification’. Its content decides not only whether a patent can be granted, but also exactly what the rights of any patent granted cover. You can prepare a specification and apply for a patent yourself, but if you do not know a lot about patent issues, you should use a chartered patent attorney or other professional advisor with the skills needed to assess whether your idea is appropriate for patent protection, and who can prepare an application for you.
Patent attorneys are legally qualified and independently regulated, and some will give you initial advice free of charge. So, make sure you are well prepared before any initial consultation. There are other patent advisors, consultants and inventor-support organisations who may also be able to help or advise you. A list of patent attorneys is available from the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys and most classified directories list local patent attorneys.
Supervision and enforcement
The patent regime is supervised and enforced in the UK by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).
Manual of Patent Practice
The Manual of Patent Practice explains the IPO's practice under the Patents Act 1977.
The Manual recites sections of the Patents Act 1977 and sections of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 relating to patents. Each provision includes commentary with related legislation in the margin. Further parts of the Manual show official notices and directions from the Patents and Designs Journal. There is also a section on Supplementary Protection Certificates for Medicinal Products and Plant Protection Products.
The IPO updates the Manual regularly to reflect recent developments such as changes in the law and judicial decisions. For example, the Manual was updated on 18 February 2008 to incorporate changes resulting from the Patents Rules 2007 and EPC 2000.
Patents Act 1977