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Patently confused

Science Minister calls for clarity for inventors

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury today launched a new guide for businesses and individuals to clear up much of the confusion over the patent laws which cover intellectual property.

Sainsbury hopes the guide will help more inventors and universities safeguard cutting-edge inventions.

"The UK has some of the best scientific brains in the world. I hope the advice in this guide will support our universities in turning brilliant research into excellent business," said Lord Sainsbury.

Back in January the Department of Trade and Industry addressed concerns about what could be patented. Once an innovation is protected in this way, it confers on the holder a legal monopoly, for a stated period, on commercial exploitation of that good.

The DTI made it clear in March last year that in the UK software is not patentable and that patents were only allowed for technological innovations.

"It is difficult to come up with a clear position without applying a blanket rule," said Jeremy Philpott, spokesman at the UK Patent Office. "The [problem] is whether broadening the field is going to help or hinder the creators of innovations."

But Patricia Hewitt, who was then e-commerce and competition minister, a post now occupied by broadband spinmeister Douglas Alexander, passed the buck to the European Commission requesting that it provide clear guidelines.

The EC's draft directive was released on 20 February this year, which simply clarified the position as Hewitt had laid it down, but still leaves a fairly broad scope for interpretation.

"Patents are needed to cover the cost of research and development. The situation for the car industry for example is quite clear-cut and designs can be patented without too much confusion. The problem with software is that patents do not necessarily benefit the designer — what matters is getting their product on the shelf first," said Philpott.

For example, Philpott said, a piece of military software itself cannot be patented, only copyrighted, but the missile which the software was used to fire could be.

Technological inventions can be patented, providing they are new and involve an inventive step, although the Patent Office does not have guidelines as to what that phrase means. This means there is room for manoeuvre.

Today's guidelines lay down a series of factors that universities, inventors and their managers should take into consideration when applying for patents. A full copy of the report is available by calling the DTI on 020 7215 2000.

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