Glossary of Terms

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  • Assignment: The sale or transfer of ownership of a patent, registered design or trade mark. It can be a useful way to profit from your invention; or it may be last chance saloon if you run out of money to keep your invention afloat.

  • Claims: Claims for novelty are what decide the fate of a patent application. You list the claims you want to make for the novelty of your inventive step(s) and an examiner decides how many of them to allow. What survives of your claims determines the strength and commercial value of your patent.

  • Co-inventor(s): Some inventions may from the start have two or more co-inventors (also known as joint inventors). Others may begin with one inventor but later justify a co-inventor if someone else - often a product designer - improves the invention and adds significant value to the intellectual property. Unless care is taken to avoid it, co-invention is packed with dispute potential.

  • Copyright: A free and internationally enforceable form of intellectual property right that protects anything that can be copied. Mostly familiarly used for printed works - books, articles, images - but can also protect text and images describing inventions and invention ideas.

  • Design right: A free intellectual property right similar to Copyright but only applies to shape and configuration. It may be better to trade up and pay for a registered design.

  • Espacenet: The European Patent Office’s free searchable database of worldwide patented ideas. Holds around 100 million patents and rising. Arguably one of the seven wonders of the internet.

  • First to file v First to invent: All patenting countries now operate a ‘first to file’ system. This means that if the origin of an invention is disputed, priority goes to the inventor who first filed a patent application. Until 2013 the USA was alone in operating a ‘first to invent’ system. This required inventors to keep scrupulously detailed, dated and witnessed notebooks documenting the origin and development of their invention ideas.

  • Infringement: Company A markets a product that includes features protected by Company B’s intellectual property rights. Or so Company B claims. If Companies A and B can’t reach agreement and it all ends up in court, the only certainty is that costs for both sides will be enormous.

  • Innovation: An overused buzzword that broadly means the first appearance of a significantly different way of doing something. Innovation may have little to do with invention. No-frills airlines, supermarkets and keg beer were once innovations.

  • Intellectual property or IP: Property that is distinctive and created mainly by intellectual effort. For example, a novel, music, a business name or brand, or the text and images that describe your invention.

  • Intellectual property rights or IPR: Legally enforceable ways of protecting your intellectual property by having it recognised as yours. Examples of IPR are patents, registered designs, copyright, trade marks.

  • Invention: A previously unknown and initially unique solution to a practical problem. It might be anything from a small component to a whole product or process.

  • Invention idea: An idea that may or may not prove to be worth developing as an invention. It’s great to have an inventive mind as long as you don’t automatically believe everything it tells you.

  • Invention project: The whole kit and caboodle of decisions and actions needed to see an invention idea through to fruition as a product. The most successful inventors are those who control and oversee their own invention projects.

  • Invention promotion company: Companies that offer to get your invention to market if you pay them enough money. Often all you’re buying is disappointment. The activities of some invention promoters have resulted in trading authorities shutting them down.

  • Invention theft: Largely a myth. Some inventors are obsessively secretive for fear that their invention idea will be stolen. The reality is that there are many far easier ways to make money dishonestly, and interest from anybody in your invention will be zero if you’re unwilling to disclose anything about it.

  • Inventive step (see also Novelty): The unique, never previously known element of an idea that makes it an invention. It may be an entirely novel product or, more usually, a familiar product type to which you’ve added a novel functional twist - an inventive step - that significantly improves it. It’s the inventive step(s) that you need to protect, not necessarily the whole product.

  • Know-how (see also Trade secret): An unusual but potentially worthwhile form of intellectual property right. Essentially ‘secret’ information not required in a patent, such as how best to assemble a product, combine ingredients or source materials. Know-how may be tradable if it offers a significant additional advantage to a licensee, but it’s a tricky area so guidance from a patent attorney is vital.

  • Licence/Licensing agreement: You can license or hire out your intellectual property rights to one or more other companies (‘licensees’) in return for some form of payment. Licensing is a good way to get maximum market value out of your invention, especially if you can’t exploit it yourself. The exact terms of the licence(s) - territory, duration, responsibility for this, that and the other - are negotiated and written into the licensing agreement(s).

  • Model (see also Prototypes): A non-functioning model, perhaps at reduced scale, can show what your invention might look like if a fully glammed-up prototype would cost too much. Use any cheap workable materials that do the job: painted wood for plastic, for example. A model can help bridge the imagination gap between how well your invention works and what it could look like as a product.

  • Novelty (see also Inventive step and Prior art): For an inventive step to be patentable it must be novel; that is, a rigorous prior art search can find no evidence that it was previously known anywhere and at any time before patent application. The novelty bar is necessarily high because otherwise, known ideas could be recycled constantly as ‘inventions’.

  • Patent: The best known, least understood, most pocket-draining and complex intellectual property right. It may earn its keep or it may cost more than your invention ever earns. Not to be messed with unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

  • Patent application: All patents start out as an application which progresses through set official stages. The application can be withdrawn at any time - for example, if the main claims for novelty are rejected. Time from first application to grant of patent varies but is usually around three years.

  • Patent attorney (formerly Patent agent): A specialist in intellectual property law whose work mostly involves helping clients to acquire, enforce or defend intellectual property rights. The title is misleading as most patent attorneys can be consulted about any form of IP or IPR.

  • Patent office: Most countries have a patent office to administer their own corner of the global intellectual property system. In the UK it’s the Intellectual Property Office (IPO); in the USA it’s the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

  • Patent pending/Patent applied for: Terms often used by inventors or companies to give the impression that a patent will be along any minute. Only legally usable after a patent application has been filed. Arguably, ‘applied for’ is more accurate. ‘Pending’ suggests that a patent is a done deal, which it may not be if examiners tear the application to shreds.

  • Patent renewal fees: The rocks that can sink inventions. To keep a patent beyond about three years you must pay renewal fees every year to the patent office of every country where your patent is in force. The often considerable recurring cost can force inventors to scale back their protection or even abandon their patent.

  • Patent thicket: Numerous overlapping patents for pretty much the same idea, making it increasingly difficult for others to invent on that patch of ground. It’s claimed that patent thickets stifle innovation. They probably do.

  • Patent troll: Pejorative term for a company that makes nothing of its own but buys up patents to hoard and later use to accuse other companies of infringement. The calculation is that even if the case is flimsy, large companies will pay off the troll because that’s cheaper and quicker than litigation.

  • Prior art (see also Inventive step and Novelty): What’s been done before, no matter how obscure, that has enough similarities to your invention idea to prevent it becoming an invention. A term used mostly in connection with patent and product searches.

  • Priority date: A date given to you by the patent office when you file a patent application. It marks the official start of your protection. It also fixes patenting deadlines that you may struggle to meet, so it isn’t entirely your friend.

  • Product designer: Someone who professionally designs products so that they are optimised not just for function and appearance but also for manufacturability and conformance with product standards. Some inventors resist the notion that a product designer is necessary but for many inventions they really, really are.

  • Production prototype (see also Prototypes): This is in theory the last prototype; the one that, with a few final modifications, will go into production. It may be best created in conjunction with a product designer and the manufacturer you intend to use.

  • Prototypes (see also Model and Production prototype): Early, rough but functioning versions of your invention. Use gradually better prototypes first to prove and improve the concept, then to generate interest from companies, investors etc.

  • Registered design: A fee-based form of intellectual property right that protects designs, including the outward appearance of an invention.

  • Simultaneous or parallel invention: Two or more inventors independently creating the same thing at the same time. It’s to be expected when different minds in different places tackle widely shared challenges, and is nothing new. For example, in the early 1920s the first mechanical televisions were created separately by John Logie Baird in Scotland and Charles Jenkins in the USA.

  • Trade mark: An intellectual property right that protects the unique identity of your product, business or brand. Trade names and/or logos can be worth fortunes and trade marks are relatively inexpensive, and so should be considered as part of an inventor’s IPR strategy.

  • Trade secret (see also Know-how): Similar to know-how in that it may fall outside the scope of a patent but be tradable in licensing or sale negotiations. A trade secret usually relates to a production process and can be hard to enforce, so always seek the advice of a patent attorney before attempting to claim a trade secret as intellectual property.


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