Innovation means doing something new that improves a product, process or service. Many innovations can be protected through intellectual property (IP) rights.
Inventions are the bedrock of innovation. An invention is a new solution to a technical problem and can be protected through patents. Patents protect the interests of inventors whose technologies are truly groundbreaking and commercially successful, by ensuring that an inventor can control the commercial use of their invention.
An individual or company that holds a patent has the right to prevent others from making, selling, retailing, or importing that technology. This creates opportunities for inventors to sell, trade or license their patented technologies with others who may want to use them.
The criteria that need to be satisfied to obtain a patent are set out in national IP laws and may differ from one country to another. But generally, to obtain a patent an inventor needs to demonstrate that their technology is new (novel), useful and not obvious to someone working in the related field. To do this, they are required to describe how their technology works and what it can do.
A patent can last up to 20 years, but the patent holder usually has to pay certain fees periodically throughout that 20-year period for the patent to remain valid. In practice, this means that if a technology has limited commercial value, the patent holder may decide to abandon the patent, at which point the technology falls into the public domain and may be freely used.
In addition to recognizing and rewarding inventors for their commercially successful technologies, patents also tell the world about inventions. In order to gain patent protection for their invention, the inventor must provide a detailed explanation of how it works. In fact, every time a patent is granted, the amount of technological information that is freely available to the general public expands (see Using and Exploiting Patent Information tutorial).
WIPO is making this and other IP-related information freely available to the public through its global databases. The largest of these – it is also one of the largest in the world – is PATENTSCOPE. It contains over 50 million patent applications that can be searched free of charge. The aim in making this information widely available is to spark new ideas and promote more innovation, and also to help narrow the knowledge gap which exists in developing and least developed countries.
A patent is a private right that is granted by a government authority. It only has a legal effect in the country (or region) in which it is granted. So inventors or companies that want to protect their technology in foreign markets need to seek patent protection for their new technologies in those countries.
Within a year of filing for patent protection in their own country, inventors can set in motion the process of obtaining patent protection in each of the markets in which they wish to sell their technology by filing a single international application via the PCT. This offers many potential advantages:
The WIPO Academy offers a free distance learning course that covers the basics of the PCT in 14 modules. Successful participants earn an electronic certificate upon completion of the course.
Other IP rights can also be used to protect a new technology, product or service. For example:
Copyright protects artistic expressions like music, films, plays, photos, artwork, works of architecture and other creative works. The term “creative works” is defined very broadly for copyright purposes, such that copyright may be used to protect functional texts such as user guides and product packaging as well as works of art.
Design rights protect the shape and form of a product, i.e., what it looks like (whereas the functionality of a product – how it works – is protected by a patent). Companies invest a great deal of time and money in coming up with new and attractive designs that seduce consumers into buying their products. Design is now widely recognized as a key determinant of commercial success.
Trademarks are signs that are capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one enterprise from those of others. Trademarks are indispensable tools in today’s business world. They help companies expand their market share and they help consumers identify the products they want to buy in a crowded market place.
Trade secrets can be used to protect the “know-how” of a business. Essentially, laws relating to trade secrets mean that some people (e.g., a company’s employees) may have a legal duty to keep certain information confidential (see Eight steps to secure trade secrets).
An invention can be protected as a trade secret or through a patent. Many businesses use trade secrets to protect their know-how, but there are downsides in doing this. From the company’s point of view it may be risky because once information is disclosed legitimately (e.g., if someone else works out how an invention works), it will no longer be protected. And from a public interest viewpoint, trade secrets are less beneficial than patents because they do not involve any sharing of technical information.