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Inventor takes DTI to European Court

One man and his vacuum go in search of legal break over patent fees
The inventor behind the revolutionary Dyson vacuum cleaner is taking Board of Trade President Ian Lang to the European Court of Human Rights over what he believes is unfair treatment of inventors.

James Dyson, whose company, Dyson Appliances, claims to have sold around pounds 100m worth of vacuum cleaners last year, is adamant that inventors should not have to pay annual fees to keep the patents they hold on their inventions valid, and has lodged a petition with the court in the hope that the practice will be outlawed.

"Inventors are being charged enormous sums to renew their patents every year - up to pounds 2,000 per country per year in some cases - and this is money that most of them cannot afford to waste because they have not yet turned their invention into a profitable business," Mr Dyson said.

In the petition, filed with the court last week, Mr Dyson claims that in 1989 he had been forced to abandon one of his UK patents, for a valve on the Dyson upright vacuum cleaner, because at the time he had no money to pay for the renewal. He later found that it was being used by a large competitor in the UK, and that he had no legal recourse. The petition claims this violated his human rights.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry - currently Mr Lang - is named as the defendant, since it is the DTI that handles patent applications and levies renewal fees in the UK.

"An invention is a piece of creative art, like a book or a song, and those don't require a renewal fee every year," Mr Dyson said. "If I cannot afford an annual renewal fee - which is simply someone stamping a piece of paper - why should the patent office be able to steal it from me?"

Mr Dyson's claims were met with only limited sympathy by intellectual property lawyers, who pointed out that the patent system is designed to protect innovation when it is being put to good use, not as a way of stifling technological progress.

"The other side of Mr Dyson's argument is that competitors both large and small have to wait for 20 years before they can use a piece of technology," said Tibor Gold, a specialist intellectual property lawyer with the City firm of Stephenson Harwood.

Mr Gold pointed out that renewal fees on patents in the UK start being applied after four years, and at pounds 110 to pounds 400 a year were bargains compared with the average pounds 3,000 cost of registering a patent in the first place. In other countries - particularly Germany - renewals can run to pounds 2,000 a year.

"The idea of stopping patent renewal fees is certainly not a daft idea, but there should still be an incentive to stop people sitting on technological breakthroughs," he added.