In an effort to counter this, the Patent Office has launched 'Making It Happen', a series of four training programmes that show companies how to reap the commercial benefits of patents and integrate innovation into their business plans.
Ted Blake, director of marketing and information at the Patent Office, calculates that in the past four years he has talked to more than 9,000 UK businesses about patents.
'The overwhelming message is that companies do not protect their ideas because they are worried by the complexity of the patents system.'
Mr Blake admits there are complexities in the patents process but says companies must weigh this against the commercial advantages of being granted the monopoly on a product. 'It is also undoubtedly true that if you have an idea and you don't protect it by patent, people can copy it - and they do.'
The Patent Office grants monopolies, or patents of invention, to individuals and companies able to lay claim to a new product or manufacturing process not previously known.
In return for this the inventor pays a fee to cover the cost of processing the patent, and publicly discloses details of the invention. A survey carried out by the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry two years ago showed that 55 per cent of all significant innovations since 1945 originated in the UK.
'This is not reflected in Britain's share of the world's export markets. It seems that the British, while famously inventive, have yet to learn how to bring their inventions to market,' Mr Blake says. 'Making it Happen' deals with how to get a patent and explains each stage of the innovation process. The first programme looks at how to check that an idea is viable.
This involves technical issues, such as ensuring that an invention can actually be manufactured; market research to test there is a market for the product; and financial management to ensure the project is economically viable.
The second programme explains how to get a patent. The third, how to market and launch a new product. And the fourth deals with how to license a patented invention if you do not want to manufacture and market it yourself.
Each programme is on a laser disk costing about pounds 900. Companies will need a pounds 700 laser player and a colour television to use the disk.
The granting of a patent is a three-stage process. The first stage, which costs pounds 25, is to fill out an application giving a full technical description of the invention and how it works. The inventor then has 12 months to file a monopoly claim, at a cost of pounds 130. This defines the monopoly that is sought on the basis of the original technical description. The Patent Office recommends that inventors do this with the help of a patent agent, a process costing between pounds 1,000 and pounds 2,000.
'Agents advise inventors how to describe their concept so that people cannot copy it without infringing the patent. For example, it would be a mistake to specify a product as being made of stainless steel if someone could copy it in plastic,' Mr Blake says.
The Patent Office does a search to check that the idea has not been patented before. The application is then published for public scrutiny. If a patent is awarded it is valid from first publication. The third stage, six months later, involves a top-up search, costing a further pounds 130. If the application withstands this examination it is published for the second time and the patent is granted. It can then be renewed annually for 20 years.
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