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‘Green channel’ fast-tracks eco-friendly patents

out-of-the-boxThe following is a guest column by Dave Croston, patent attorney and advanced engineering sector specialist at Withers & Rogers LLP:

A new “green channel” for fast-tracking patent applications for environmentally-friendly inventions is already winning the support of British inventors. But while the benefits of faster processing are considerable, in some instances they may be better off sticking to the slower route.

A typical UK patent application takes between three to four years, from filing the application to having it granted. Under the new fast-track system, which was introduced by the UK Intellectual Property Office on 12 May 2009, a patent application for an environmentally-friendly product can now be processed in as little as six months.

It’s difficult to overestimate the benefit that this fast-track to patent protection can bring to the inventor who is waiting to sign a first licence agreement or do a deal with a manufacturer. It’s like opening up a new motorway for green products to achieve patent protection en route to market. To qualify, all applicants have to do is make a “reasonable case” to show that their invention is green.

It is possible to fast-track patent applications for other reasons. The UK IPO will grant patent applications more quickly if the filer is concerned about a potential infringement or if there is a commercial deal that requires it to be granted by a specific date.

Since launching the “green channel,” the UK IPO has confirmed that 20 patent applications have been granted to date via this route and more are pending.

One of these early applicants is 41-year-old Karl Dorn, an Essex-based father of two, who — while a plasterer by trade — has been inventing products for the past 10 years. After inventing a product called the “standbyplug,” a plug-in device which avoids the need to waste energy by keeping electrical appliances in stand-by mode, he wanted to secure patent protection for it as quickly as possible. About six months after filing his application, it was granted and he was in a position to seal a deal with an interested UK-based manufacturer, Energenie. Karl is now the proud UK distributor of his own invention.

It may not always be a good idea to fast-track patent applications, however. Companies investing in a number of research and development projects in clean technology industries, for example, may find that while filing at an early stage brings peace of mind, there is little to gain from having it granted quickly. For the first 18 months that a patent application is pending, it is not in the public domain. Also, while the application is processed, the final scope of protection is uncertain, leaving competitors guessing. Thus, a slower patent application process allows the company to buy some time to continue to develop the product without competitors snapping at their heels.

For inventors and startup businesses in particular, there is much more to gain from obtaining patent protection quickly. A granted patent puts inventors or companies on the front foot in a new marketplace and in a more powerful position than if they were simply reacting to a potential infringement after the fact.

The “green channel” is already proving popular and this is expected to continue. It could even make the difference between UK companies choosing to stay in the UK to continue their environmentally-friendly R&D work, rather than hot-footing it overseas.

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