The UK IPO fights for its slice

The UK IPO fights for its slice

The UK IPO has recently published a report analysing the use of the UK patent system and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the UK in relation to IP. Some interesting observations of this report include the low use of the UK IPO as a direct route to obtaining protection in the UK and the higher filing activity of foreign companies compared to those based in the UK. Ultimately, increasing awareness of UK companies to the benefits of intellectual property could contribute to more filings and increased use of the UK direct route but the UPC could also impact the number of direct filings.

Believe in Britain (and the UK IPO)

The UK patent system is an attractive establishment boasting many advantages over its counterparts in other countries. The UK IPO is seen to have high standards of patent examination and effective enforcement, both of which are highly rated by its users and held in high regard.

Compared with other national offices such as France, Germany and the US, the UK patent system offers some of the lowest application and renewal costs. This makes it particularly attractive for SMEs with smaller budgets looking to protect their IP. The UK itself is seen as an attractive consumer market and is an important territory for IP protection for a large number of firms. 

However, recent statistics suggest that direct filings at the UK IPO are lower than those at other key patent offices, such as China, Japan, India and Australia. It appears that very few companies are utilising the UK patent system as a direct route to patenting. Further discussion on this topic is outlined in our article ‘A drop in UK patent filings – worry or warranted?’.  

Stronger Together (at the EPO)

Even though the costs to file an application at the UK IPO are relatively low (it’s free for a year!), it is still only 12th in the global list of patent offices by number of applications received. So why would applicants that want to protect their inventions in the UK decide to use the EPO rather than the UKIPO?

One obvious reason is that the EPO offers more protection for only a little more expense. Once the higher fees to get a European application up and running have been paid, the costs for getting the application granted are much the same as those at the UK IPO. At the end of that process, you can have your UK patent, and a whole load of others too for a little extra. Certainly, the EPO route is preferable for keep options open in Europe for longer.

The EPO is also seen to give a higher quality search, so for early certainty as to what you’re going to be up against to get your patents granted, the EPO is a sensible option. Further, for applicants in one of the largest growing sectors – software patenting – the EPO is seen as a little friendlier than the UK IPO, so if you want to get a UK patent for the great new app that you’ve developed, then the EPO is likely to be the path of least resistance.  

A potential new filing alternative – the Unitary Patent system

Post-Brexit, UK applicants will still be able to apply for European patents, and European patents will still be able to take effect in the UK. However, if the Unified Patents Court (UPC) and Unitary Patent (UP) system do come to be, could they impact UK filings?

The short answer is – not really. The likelihood of UK involvement in any eventual UP system has been discussed elsewhere. While it is questionable whether the UP system would proceed without UK involvement, whichever way the coin lands, UK protection will still be available via the EPO. As such, any eventual implementation of the UPC and UP system is unlikely to have much of a positive or negative impact on activity at the UK IPO.                             

Other factors to consider

The figures show that foreign applicants are filing many more UK patent applications than UK applicants. Only 7% of applications filed at the UKIPO, or at the EPO and designating the UK, were filed by UK applicants. So why do UK companies seem reluctant to protect their innovations at home?

One view considered in the recent UK IPO report is that UK companies have a relative lack of understanding of the benefits of patenting compared to businesses abroad. It also appears that on an engineer or inventor level, there are mixed opinions as to whether they should be aware of the values and processes involved in patenting. According to the UK IPO report, in German businesses for example, it is expected that inventors or engineers are educated in intellectual property. This difference in culture and the awareness of the value of IP between businesses in the UK and other European countries may go some way to explaining why UK companies appear to patent less, even in their own territory. Coupled with the unpredictability of how much obtaining a patent will cost at the outset, something common to patent offices around the world, this inevitably leads to a reluctance of UK individuals and businesses to attempt to obtain protection for their IP.

What can be done to get the UK patenting?

It seems that, regardless of whether companies choose the European or direct UK route, UK businesses should be encouraged to protect their intellectual property and patent more. The role of patent attorneys, why they are needed and how to get the best out of the relationship is thought to be an important factor in helping UK companies increase patenting activity. Patent attorneys, amongst others, have the potential to be at the forefront of helping to propagate UK innovation by promoting the benefit of patenting to UK companies and providing simple and easy to understand explanations of the patenting process and their own role in guiding business through it.

Increasing awareness of UK businesses to intellectual property and the benefits it can bring through public engagement could go some way to helping and encouraging UK businesses to patent more, and it’s up to the experts to lead the charge.

The UK patent system is undeniably a strong system that demonstrates a number of advantages compared to its foreign counterparts. For firms only just beginning to pursue protection for IP, the UK patent system may be a slightly less daunting and cheaper option than the European system. And whilst the UK may need some more encouragement to increase patent filings, this does not take away from the fact that the UK is still a strong and desirable market in which to obtain protection and companies, both at home and abroad, want to obtain protection here. 

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