Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment: Patents

This guide brings together resources specific to students, staff and researchers from the Faculty of Computing, Engineering, and the Built Environment.

You can use a patent to protect your invention. It gives you the right to take legal action against anyone who makes, uses, sells or imports it without your permission. But they are expensive and difficult to obtain (IPO, 2021):

  • The application process is complicated -  only 1 in 20 applicants get a patent without professional help
  • It is expensive - with professional help, applications typically cost £4,000
  • It can be long - it usually takes 5 years. 

Some patents protect inventions that are completely unique; however most cover incremental changes to inventions that already exist. Patents are usually sought to establish a commercially useful monopoly that is related to one or more products or processes. Patent applications have been used to meet government targets, qualify for tax breaks, as a measure of academic/professional credibility or rank, or for a method of disclosure (defensive publication) (IPO, 2015: 4 (pdf)).

The rules governing what is patentable vary between countries. In the UK:

The invention must be:

  • Something that can be made or used
  • New
  • Inventive - not just a simple modification to something that already exists
The drawings show proposed new designs which you can use to see how others have tried to improve on existing product designs or solutions. If your work at the university means you need to protect your own intellectual property, contact the Commercialisation and Contracts team who have experience in doing this through the appropriate mechanisms, such as patenting, copyright, design registration and trademarks. You may also wish to seek advice from the Business and IP Centre at the Library of Birmingham (see below).

You cannot patent:

  • Literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
  • A way of doing business, playing a game or thinking
  • A method of medical treatment or diagnosis
  • A discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method
  • The way information is presented
  • Some computer programs or mobile apps
  • ‘Essentially biological’ processes like crossing-breeding plants, and plant or animal varieties.

Finding patents

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) advice is to search the internet and, if you don’t find your idea, you should then look in databases of published patents then trade booklets and catalogues. Or you could pay a patent attorney or other professional IP advisor to do a search for you. Most patent applications filed fail to be granted because a similar invention has been published before.

Databases of published patents include:

The IPO's Online Patent Information and Document Inspection Service lets you check the status and access information on UK patent applications. The Patents Publication Enquiry Service covers all GB applications published and granted after 3 January 2007 and all GB corrected documents published after 1 April 2010.

Business and IP Centre - Library of Birmingham

Business and Learning provide free events. These offer support for those thinking of starting a business or for those who are already trading and looking for further guidance. This support is made up of one to one advice sessions for both business advice and intellectual property advice as well as workshops and access to a comprehensive range of business resources including databases such as IBIS World, GrantFinder, Creditsafe, Mintel, FAME and COBRA, journals and industry directories and guides.

The Business Library is part of the UK Patent Library Network (PatLibs) and is the one covering the whole of the Midlands. Free, confidential, Intellectual Property advice sessions are one hour in duration and can be booked by telephone on 0121 242 4242.