Hands off my big idea

If you dream up a new invention, how can you guard it while waiting for a patent? Rachel Gordon looks at insurance policies on offer
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The Independent Online
Scribbled a note with a Biro? Opened a bottle of wine with a corkscrew? Or maybe set up a sprinkler on the lawn?

There is nothing special about these everyday actions, except they all involve using an invented gadget. Up and down the country budding inventors are working on different products, often as part of big and small companies, sometimes in the living room at home.

But getting from the drawing board to the shops is neither quick nor cheap. Once you've formulated the idea you need to see a patent agent. They will check your product is original and then come up with a form of words to describe it. The wheels will then be set in motion for the licence to be granted, although costs for all the guidance could be up to pounds 5,000 and the waiting time up to five years.

In the meantime your idea is likely to become common knowledge and ripe for a rival to steal.

But imagine if you are a first time inventor with a saleable idea. In time you could be worth more than the biggest lottery winner. If your brilliant idea is stolen, you will be left with nothing. And if you've still got the willpower, it's back to a frustrating square one.

But now there is some protection at hand, in the shape of intellectual property insurance. Simply get in touch with brokers Willis Corroon and they will sort out the rest with a patent insurance policy.

For as little as pounds 77 you could buy yourself up to pounds 35,000 worth of cover to pay for legal costs should you believe your idea is stolen. You can pay more if you want higher levels of cover up to a maximum of pounds 500,000.

Willis Corroon's Coral Hitchings explains she had a stand at this year's Great British Innovations and Inventors Fair held at the Barbican in March. She says she was swamped with inquiries from delegates. Many had no idea insurance existed or was within their means.

Certainly few are aware of the potential costs of a legal battle. As Ian Lewis, of brokers First City, another provider, explains, a specialist lawyer can charge about pounds 300 an hour for their services. Added to this will be the cost of the patent agent - at least pounds 100 an hour.

Ms Hitchings believes insurance should be taken out once the patent has been applied for, even though a legal case cannot be started until it is approved. But she points out if the patent takes three years to be granted, appearing in court to challenge an infringement will probably take even longer, and so the waiting gap should not be a problem.

From the insurers' point of view, intellectual property cover is still a young operation, and Ms Hitchings says while claims have been made, it is still too early to see if the business will be profitable for them.

While Willis Corroon aims its policy at the individual, others have devised cover mainly for the small- to medium-size companies. They can often be particularly vulnerable to copying and, like the inventor at home, could be unable to pay the huge legal costs involved in a court action.

Mr Lewis says a typical client might be a small software design company which develops a new product that might then be sold on licence to a giant IT firm, making a packet from royalties.

Making pirate copies is rife in the IT business and so taking out insurance to protect against this makes sense. But Mr Lewis says proper cover to deal with the hefty legal fees is not cheap, and could cost several thousand pounds.

Abbey Legal Protection, which also provides an intellectual property policy, agrees it is often the smaller companies who need protection. Abbey's Richard Candy explains the large firms often have their own in- house legal teams, prepared to defend any infringements, while individuals and small firms need protection. He believes there is enormous potential in the market.

Intellectual property cases normally hit the headlines only when big players are involved. Often the case doesn't go to court as it is much cheaper to settle outside. Coca Cola were said to be angry when Sainsbury's launched their own brand in supposedly similar packaging.

Coca Cola, with its muscle and team of top lawyers, guards the rights to its recipe ferociously. Intellectual property insurance may not provide quite the same protection, but in a fiercely competitive and sometimes unfair world, it can help.

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