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In our hour of need is the UK’s patent process a help or a hindrance?

It is safe to say that the sudden emergence of Covid-19 and its impact has taken the world by surprise. It has brought economies to their knees as well as posed social challenges, but most importantly, it represents a great threat to the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable. In these truly unprecedented times, our hopes of fighting, mitigating, and eventually, overcoming this global pandemic rest on the shoulders of innovative companies, universities and other organisations coming up with technical solutions to solve this problem, and fast.

Here Akshay Thaman, IP Analyst at GovGrant, reflects on the challenge that the pandemic brings to the UK’s patent process.

How do breakthroughs happen?

We all know that this is not an easy task. It is one thing to come up with a novel idea, but it is an iterative, and quite frankly, a costly process to commercialise it – but a very rewarding one if you get it right. However, there is nothing worse than some ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ coming along and riding on the coat tails of your idea. Especially without spending any hard-earned R&D pounds. Typically, a patent is sought to prevent your competitors from doing just that.

To qualify for a granted patent an invention must be novel, inventive and have an industrial application. A patent gives the owner the right to prevent others from using, selling and distributing the invention for a period of up to 20 years within the territory filed. And this is very important, especially for SMEs, as it gives time for the applicant to commercialise their invention with limited competition, and to potentially recoup their R&D investment in order to help fund future R&D projects. But more importantly, it provides the incentive to invent. What is the point of spending precious time and money in becoming the inventor when you could copy what they are doing for a fraction of the cost? As we know, every penny counts.

How does the UK patent process usually help?

In the UK, it can take approximately 2-3 years to obtain a granted patent. Normally, given the volume and complexity of the patent applications received by the UK Intellectual Property Office, that is pretty good going – especially when compared to other patent offices across the globe. In addition, it takes 18 months (from the date of filing) for a patent application to be published into the public domain. This allows businesses to reassess their position 12-18 months down the line, where the applicant can decide to continue or abandon their patent application before publication.

But is the UK patent process helpful during a pandemic?

But are these timelines a limitation of the current process in a time where there is a global need for a solution to a technical problem? There are countless examples of cross-collaboration between companies and universities who are publishing their work in academic journals and contributing to the fight against Covid-19, which is great to see, but it can be difficult to secure funding for those projects. What if you have the expertise to make a difference but are not in the financial position to do so? Maybe your company is more commercial than academic in nature and you rely on intangible assets like intellectual property as a revenue stream. Perhaps the UK government should do more to help UK businesses that are in such a position.

There is also a moral element here, maybe it is not right for one company to hold all the cards and for others to be kept in the dark about what cards other businesses are holding, especially when there are lives on the line. Although it is important that businesses are rewarded for their intellectual property, a balance needs to be met. The notion of the patent process was built upon rewarding inventors for their intellectual creations, in exchange for the blueprint that would teach the world how to carry out their invention. In turn, encouraging innovation by enabling others to build on the previous creation, resulting in more new and imaginative ways of solving a challenging problem.

Maybe it is time that an alternative mechanism is put in place so that the patent process is agile enough to fulfil its intention to be the vehicle that fosters innovation and be able to adapt in its hour of need.

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