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Q - What my employees have produced is not so much a literary or artistic work, it's a new idea which I think has great commercial potential.

A - In that case, you may well be into the area of patents. Patents have developed throughout the industrialised world to encourage innovation amongst businesses and individuals. In return for investing in innovation and making their inventions public through registration, inventors are given monopoly rights to exploit their invention for a fixed period, after which anyone is free to use the patented technology.

Before your invention can be patented, it has to satisfy various criteria. The basic criteria are that the invention must be novel, involve an inventive step and be capable of industrial application.

To be novel, an invention must not already have been expressed, or "anticipated" to use the jargon, by someone else. Also, you must not have made the invention public, meaning that confidentiality is of utmost importance at the early stages. The inventive step criterion basically means that the idea you have come up with must not be obvious to someone who is skilled in the field the invention relates to.

You can apply for a UK patent at the UK Intellectual Property office.  A UK patent will give you protection in the UK but not elsewhere.  Many clients apply for European wide protection by making an application to the European Patent office.  Although more costly, a successful application awards protection in over 30 European countries.

When deciding to apply for a patent, we advise that you contact a patent agent with experience in your particular field, since drafting a strong application is a skilled job. The patent authority then examines the patent application (to see if the various criteria are satisfied) before it is published and then, if successful, patent protection is granted.

We have a good relationship with a number of patent agents and would be happy to put you in touch with someone who will be able to advise on an application in your specific field.

It is vital that the subject of your patent application is kept secret until the application has been lodged. You must resist the temptation to show off your invention to others unless they have signed up to a confidentiality agreement - Blackadders can help with this. Even so, you should only disclose if there are good commercial reasons to do so.

A successful patent has a life of up to 20 years from the date of filing of the application, subject to payment of renewal fees. It gives the patent holder the exclusive right to manufacture the patented item or use of the patented process and the exclusive right to import and/or sell articles covered by the patent.

Although seeing a patent application through to grant can be a fairly expensive business, the financial rewards can be significant, reflecting the substantial research and development investment normally put into patented technology. Patent protection can, of course, be sought worldwide. International treaties mean that once you have filed a patent application in, for example, the EU, you then have a period of time during which you can delay applying in other countries but still benefit from the "priority date" under your EU application.

As with copyright, you are free to exploit patented technology by manufacturing the product or using the patented process yourself. However, it is very common to license patents to other businesses in return for royalty payments. This is particularly so where the patent owner concentrates on one domestic market and licenses the technology elsewhere; where the patent owner is an academic institution without the ability to commercialise the inventions itself, or where the inventor is a pure technology company, without the means or desire to manufacture or distribute itself.