A patent is an exclusive right granted by the state allowing its owner to control the commercial exploitation of an invention. The invention can relate to anything from computers and electronics to pharmaceuticals and gene sequences, provided that it is new and is not obvious. The invention must be technical and practical, rather than purely intellectual; methods of playing card games or doing business, however novel and inventive, are not protectable by way of patents.

In the UK, someone who invents any of these can ask the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to grant them a patent. However, in return for their exclusive right to use the invention, the state requires that the inventor submits an application describing what the invention is and how to put it into practice. The IPO will then examine the application to assess if a patent should be granted. Originally, hundreds of years ago, patents were granted directly by the Crown, and the inventor had to petition various courts and other government officials in order to secure the right to stop others using the invention. They did not have to provide much detail of what the invention actually was, though it was necessary sooner or later to provide some sort of description.

Following the industrial revolution, which, of course, produced thousands of new inventions, the system became formalised. Government Patent Offices were set up and the requirements for securing a patent were clarified.

First, one had to make a written submission including a description of the invention and how to put it into practice, as well as some definitions, these being to define the scope of the patent, i.e. to clarify what others should not do. This would then be examined by officials and, if they agreed that you had an invention and that it was appropriately described and defined, they would give you a patent. The grant of a patent entitled the ‘patentee’, for a limited period (originally 14 years, but nowadays 20 years, provided you pay the renewal fees to keep the patent in force), to stop other people using the invention, albeit only in the country or countries where the patent had been obtained.

In order to render the ability to stop others effective, the description and the definition of the invention needed to be properly drawn up and it was this requirement that led to the development, in the first half of the nineteenth century, of so-called patent engineers, who, rather more than 100 years ago, turned naturally into ‘patent agents’, that is, agents acting for others to obtain patents and who are now called ‘patent attorneys’.

The first and most fundamental requirement, if you are going to write down a description and some definitions of someone else’s invention, is to be able to understand it. Most inventions are more or less technically based and accordingly the basic requirement for a patent attorney is technical ability. Almost all entrants to the profession now have a hard science or engineering degree.

The next requirement is to be able to write, not merely to go through the motions, but to be able to reflect, in language which is clear, unambiguous, and desirably concise, what has been invented, and to be able to draw up a definition which includes within its scope things or processes which make use of the invention or ‘underlying inventive idea’, but which excludes things that people have done before. This is not so easy to do, but it is a skill which can be acquired by learning and practice. You can find out more about the skills needed to be a patent attorney here.

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