Prior art searching is one of the most difficult things to get right in the IP sector, since any search is open-ended. How do you know whether there is a knockout document which discloses something identical to your invention that has just not been found, or whether it just does not exist?
This issue is compounded for patents by the publication cycle. Almost all patent applications are secret for the first eighteen months of their lives, and therefore have the potential to act against later-filed applications.
The prospective patentee is therefore presented with an unpleasant uncertainty – even the most thorough search cannot guarantee validity if unknown non-public prior art is available. Given that preparing and filing a patent application can involve a significant outlay of initial resources for start-ups, this can be very off-putting.
The British Process
It is worth, at this stage, outlining just what happens to a British patent application once filed.
From the date on which the application is filed, the claimed invention is ‘patent pending’. However, only a few morsels of information are visible on the UK Intellectual Property Office Register.
Provided the interim steps are taken, in particular, submitting formalised drawings suitable for publication, then the application will publish in full eighteen months from the date of filing or priority, which allows third parties to inspect the content of the application.
Critically, though, the first person (or their successor) to apply for a patent to an invention is the only person to whom the patent can be granted. This is known as the ‘first-to-file’ system, rather than ‘first-to-invent’.
This secrecy creates an inherent problem. A patent is a monopoly right, but since the applications are secret when filed, it is feasible that lots of people could independently arrive upon the same idea, and want to patent it before any of the pending applications become public.
To offset this issue, prior-filed or prior-priority but unpublished patent applications are deemed relevant to the patentability of later-filed applications, for the purposes of novelty (i.e. uniqueness) only, provided that the application was filed in the same jurisdiction. Such a document cannot be cited against the inventiveness of a later application.
This provision in the law is specifically designed to prevent ‘double patenting’, that is, two patents being granted to the same invention.
This provides some comfort to prospective patentees. An unpublished document can only be used to attack the validity of any later-filed patent application in very specific circumstances. It would be unjust for the unpublished document to be deemed relevant to inventiveness (i.e. obviousness), when the skilled person could not rely on that information at the time of applying for their own patent.
Hunting for information
Whilst full patent applications are not available until the date of publication, there is some information available regarding patent applications which have been filed.
Every Wednesday, the UK Patents Journal is published, which has a list of patent applications which have been filed recently. The visible information includes the date of filing, the name of the applicant, the title of the invention, and the application number.
Whilst this is a very minimal amount of information, it does allow some level of monitoring to be undertaken to see whether competitors are filing patent applications themselves, and to what type of technology. It also allows you to keep track of the status of the application over time where applicable.
Strategies for minimising surprises
If you are considering filing a patent application, you may want to take the following steps to avoid unpleasant surprises downstream:
- Ensure that full patent searches are conducted prior to filing a patent application so that relevant prior art documents can be uncovered in advance. See our earlier articles on how best to go about conducting free patent searches.
- Keep an eye out for competitors’ product launches, and monitor the patent journal for applications which have been filed shortly in advance of the product launch. This may give you an idea of the sort of things that they are looking to protect, and you then may be able to foresee potential difficulties.
- File early! As soon as you are ready, and have the necessary technical information to warrant filing a patent application, you should do so. Delaying increases the risk of third parties filing their own applications before you.
- Ensure that you have thought through optional embodiments of your invention, or other clever features which may be important. The more technical information that is provided about these features from the outset, the greater the likelihood that you will have options for overcoming surprises during the examination procedure of the application.
As patent attorneys, we try and provide you with a flexible application which can withstand the rigours of examination, so that if close prior art documents are found, you have options for still getting some form of patent granted, so that initial risk does not become a lingering concern as you grow your business.