Young Scientists contest - European Patent Office


Most people know that when they write something, whether it is a piece of music, a poem, or a text for an article or a book, their work is protected by copyright. Protection is more or less automatic and free from the date the work was created. However, the protection of ideas of a technical nature (such as the vast majority of projects entered into young scientist competitions) is dealt with under patent law, which is very different to and rather more complex than copyrighting. Few participants in young scientist competitions seem to give much thought to the commercial potential of their project. They are too busy concentrating on scientific and technical details. This may be a fatal oversight, however, as patents cannot be applied for retrospectively. European Patent Office

This paper is intended to give very general advice in order for young scientists to start thinking about the subject of patent protection before rights are lost by accident rather than by consent. It is not meant as a substitute for the specialist advice available from patent attorneys and organisations such as inventor associations and national patent offices.

Contestants in young scientist competitions should be aware that their projects are their own property. The legal term for this is "intellectual property". It can be protected by various means such as patents, copyright, and registration of designs or trademarks. Of these, patenting is perhaps the most relevant means for protecting young scientists' projects. Many projects are of commercial interest. By legally protecting their intellectual property, exclusive rights are secured which may eventually lead to financial gain. The granting of exclusive rights is not in itself a guarantee of commercial success, the invention must either be used profitably itself or sold or licensed to someone else. Intellectual property rights may also serve to attract the attention of potential investors and confer prestige on individuals or an organization.

Normally participation in a young scientist competition leads to ideas "being made available to the public." Legally this doesn't mean that a product or service has actually to be offered. In fact it is enough if an idea is demonstrated or exhibited, as is usually the case at a competition. The exact legal effect of this may vary from country to country, so it needs to be carefully looked into on a national basis. However, contestants should be aware that, in most cases, a project which has been "made available to the public" before filing a patent application, can no longer be patented. It is therefore critical that contestants either apply for patent protection of their intellectual property before entering a young scientist competition, or make a conscious decision not to, in the knowledge that they will then lose their intellectual property. Before this decision has been taken and acted upon it is important to avoid the pitfall of making details of the project "available to the public" by other means, such as by press releases etc. Even just discussing a project with someone can count as making it available to the public - so keep it secret!

All too often young scientists are deterred from patenting by misconceptions about cost or how complicated the procedure is. The cost of patenting is meaningful only when compared to the potential financial gain to be made from the patent. Contestants interested in patenting should therefore investigate the market and develop an idea of the commercial worth of their invention. Enquiries should then be made into national and international patenting costs, starting at the information department of the national patent office. Generally costs break down into three areas: those of the patent office(s), legal representation and translations. Some national offices offer special advice and reduced fees to participants in young scientist competitions. It is particularly important for young scientists to appreciate that, generally speaking, patent costs are low to start with but increase with time. This means that it is relatively inexpensive to "get a foot in the door", buying time in which to fully assess the potential market for the project and consider the commercial viability of a patent. Whilst not usually obligatory, it is recommended that contestants make use of a patent attorney. Lists of these are normally available from national patent offices. Patent attorneys are highly qualified specialists with a technical or scientific background. They assume much of the responsibility for processing the patent application, hence the young scientist does not have to worry about the complexities of patent law.

Finally, as well as looking into the financial value of a patent, contestants should try to establish whether their idea, or something similar, has already been patented. Many national patent offices and patent libraries offer assistance in this area. It is also possible to use the Internet to conduct simple searches for patent literature in the databases of national and regional patent offices. The esp@cenet service of the members of the European Patent Organisation and the online patent databases of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are good starting points. Further details may be found on the websites of the relevant patent offices.

European Patent Office