What happens when a Patent expires?

Patents are one of the most common ways in which businesses can protect their investments in research and development. They provide legal ownership of an invention, deter others from stealing or copying your ideas, by enabling legal action to be taken against those attempting to cash in on your concepts.

Once granted, a patent can be renewed annually for up to twenty years from its date of filing. When a patent reaches its twentieth anniversary it expires and the holder can no longer claim exclusivity on its usage. It is worth remembering that even in cases when a patent does reach the end of its lifespan, it does not necessarily mean that a business rival can immediately enter the market and start cashing in your latest business ideas.

It is important to remember that few products and inventions remain fixed. Over time and in response to changing manufacturing techniques, consumer demands and market forces it is highly likely that even relatively simple inventions will naturally evolve. Consider, for example, mobile phones used today, compared with those in common use during the 1990s.

All patents which were granted on mobile phone technology prior to 1995 have now expired and although it would theoretically be possible to reproduce the phones in common use during the early 1990s without fear of breaching a patent, the ways in which the technology has evolved means that it is highly questionable whether a business could successfully cash in on the lapsed patents available in the public domain, compared with the latest smartphone.

The ongoing legal disputes between some of the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturers in court rooms around the world, go some way towards illustrating the importance not only of securing intellectual property on a design, but also continuing to protect investments made in research and development.

This is particularly important when it comes to filing new patent applications, as each new ‘inventive step’ can be patented in its own right, allowing many different aspects of an invention to be protected. Securing multiple patents can also mean that even if an earlier patent expires, the latest developments added to the product will continue to be safeguarded from being plagiarised.

At present, there are can also be financial incentives to encourage businesses to protect their intellectual property. The Government’s Patent Box scheme, launched in 2013 enables businesses to benefit from reduced Corporation Tax liabilities on patented inventions. However the rules governing the Patent Box are changing and it is worth noting the scheme is expected to close to new entrants in June 2016.

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