Patents are issued on many different kinds of inventions. For example, Google-search is a patented technology. American technology company Apple famously holds more than a thousand patents and patents are also issued on simpler things. In 2003, a group of students even patented a spaghetti plate that has proved to be preventing sauce-splatter while eating pasta.
If you are looking at three or four foreign countries, it can be cheaper to approach their patent offices directlyGerhard Losenicky, Austrian patent office
However, notall innovations or developments can be patented. The invention has to be new and unpublished. “That is where a lot of entrepreneurs – not only startups – make their first mistake. They publish their idea before they apply for a patent,” says Gerhard Losenicky who is a patent expert with the Austrian patent office. “In that case, a patent can no longer be granted.”
The basic requirement is that the content of the patent itself must enable an expert in the field to rebuild the technology. Since the formal requirements for a patent can be quite tricky, Losenicky recommends hiring a patent attorney.
When do I need a patent?
Andreas Filzwieser, co-founder of Styrian metallurgy-company Mettop, has filed for a lot of patents in his career, two of them for his own business. He states that “this is clearly a very important strategic decision that entrepreneurs in the field of technology will most certainly have to decide on. Making a mistake can be a costly thing, one way or the other.” Filzwieser also points out that while a patent in Austria does not increase the value of your company in the balance sheet, it is a great asset to have, e.g. when looking for investments or partners.
“A patent would be useful if your invention can be reproduced by reverse engineering,” Losenicky gives another example for the advantages of a patent. Other things to consider include duration of product-lifecyle or whether you are able to keep the invention a secret without a patent. “Often a patent is used to secure one partner’s know-how in a joint-venture.”
What is it good for, besides protection?
As Filzwieser points out, a patent can have more than just the use of protecting ones inventions. “Of course, that is the intended purpose of a patent. But above that, a patent is often used for marketing and advertising ends.” Maybe, that is why those steak knives on the shopping-channel always embody “patented technology”. A successful patent often means a source of revenue for the company that holds it. That way, you get a return on your patent fees with your invention – in the case of metallurgy company Mettop, one of the two patents they currently hold adds to the income of the company.
How do I get a patent?
The authority that issues patents is the patent office of the country the company is based in. The Austrian patent office offers a lot of useful information for first-timers on their website. “Before you talk to a patent attorney,” says Losenicky, “you would do well to do some research on your own.” Online-portals like Espacenet or Depatisnet are good starting-points.
Whatever you decide for – take the costs into consideration.Andreas Filzwieser, co-founder of Mettop
Being granted a patent in Austria does not mean protection of your invention abroad. “Getting international patents can become very expensive,” says Filzwieser. “In our case, yearly patent costs run into the six-figure-numbers – money we hope to earn back via licensing.”
Losenicky: “If you are looking at three or four foreign countries, it can be cheaper to approach their patent offices directly. Otherwise, you can go through the European patent office. Whereas there is not yet such a thing as a European patent, you can get a patent for up to 38 European countries (including Turkey and Switzerland) via the European Patent Office. Another possibility is to protect your invention via the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).
“Whatever you decide for,” says Filzwieser, “take the costs into consideration.” An Austrian patent is relatively cheap – initial cost (without attorney fees) is roughly 500 euros. After six years, patent-holders have to pay an annual fee, starting at 104 euros. If that fee is not paid, the patent automatically expires. If you hold patents in more than one country, costs multiply.
Some pieces of advice
Both experts stress the importance of considering your patent-strategy carefully. Filzwieser gives an example: “It can be a prudent move form a separate company that has the sole purpose of holding your patents, and gets paid royalties by your original business. That way, the worth of the patent is immediately visible in your business record. As inventor, you can also decide to hold the patent as a private person and keep it out of your company.”