A patent is a bargain between the inventor and the government under which, in return for disclosing an invention such that someone skilled in the art could recapitulate it, the inventor gets an enforceable right to commercialise the invention for 20 years. Commercial entities are willing to seek these rights through financial remuneration to secure competitive advantage, especially if investment in technology develpment is required. Patenting is an expensive and lengthy process, it typically takes ~5 years to get a patent granted and typically costs upwards of tens of thousands of pounds, with ongoing annual renewal fees also adding significant costs.
For an invention to be patentable it needs to be novel, inventive and have industrial applicability. Three requirements have to be met in every case and are tested by the patent office separately.
Novelty - means that the invention has not been published in the public domain i.e. publication, poster, oral presentation by the inventor themselves or by anyone else; any relevant pre-existing information is known as 'prior art'. If an invention has already been disclosed by a third party it is no longer possible to file a patent application. If you think your idea might be patentable please discuss it with the Translation Office before a public domain disclosure: firstname.lastname@example.org
Inventive - means that the invention is not obvious to anyone skilled in the art i.e. peers of the inventor are often a good reference point for individuals skilled in the art. A good test of this inventive step or non-obviousness is whether another scientist with comparable skills would not simply put two or more pieces of existing information together and come up with the invention. Often an academics' threshold for what could be considered inventive is significantly higher than that required to file a patent application, so it is worth discussing your idea with the Translation Office if you think it may be inventive.
Industrial applicability - means that the invention needs to have a technical application.
The first step is the filing of a priority patent application, usually in the UK (occasionally in the US). This establishes the 'priority date' which is the first date that the invention is disclosed to the patent office. This date is important as it establishes the date at which your invention is considered as prior-art against any competitor inventions. At 12 months it is usual to file a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) application and extra data can be added in at this point. Filing of a PCT application allows the inventor to pursue a patent application in most countries worldwide. At 18 months the European Patent Office (EPO) issues a search report listing any relevant prior art (publications, posters, presentations etc) that has been identified by the patent office, together with an initial opinion on the patentability of your invention. At 30 months if you wish to continue to pursue the application then it is necessary to select the individual countries where you wish to pursue a patent application. The application is then examined by the individual national patent offices with individual payments incurred at each office. It is normal to have to go through several rounds of examination reports and responses for each patent office and claims generally get amended and narrowed down. Each round of examination in each territory will cost several thousand pounds. Once the patent is in order for grant there is an issue fee to be paid for each territory and then annual renewal fees.