Going green gets faster patents

My appointment to the role of Minister for Intellectual Property comes at a defining moment for the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). The step changes which are being implemented now will impact positively both in supporting growth for business and in improving the services which the IPO deliver to businesses.

One focus for change is the acceleration of patent processing, an example of which is the superfast patent processing service announced by the Secretary of State in December. This will be introduced by the IPO later this year and would mean it would be possible to get from filing to patent grant in around 90 days, for a premium fee. At the same time as consulting the public on how such a superfast service may be implemented, we will be taking the opportunity to seek users’ views on existing acceleration services, including the free Green Channel service.

The Green Channel, which was launched in May 2009, allows inventors to request accelerated processing of their patent application if the invention has an environmental benefit. Utilising the Green Channel, inventors can obtain a patent in nine months instead of the usual three to four years: this cuts waiting time.

In getting a patent granted more quickly, businesses will:

  • Gain increased confidence in their unique product;
  • Find it easier to get investment;
  • Speed up commercialisation of their product; and
  • Be able to license, sell or mortgage the patent earlier.

The Green Channel service aims to encourage innovation in green technology; the IPO was the first in the world to introduce such a scheme. Since its launch, the IPO has granted 321 patents via the Green Channel and these applications now account for 1 per cent of total applications received. And the service has received a positive reception from the business community and a growing interest from other patent offices. Australia, South Korea, Japan, United States, Israel, Canada, Brazil and China have since launched similar services. This demonstrates how the UK is a trailblazer in supporting growth in green technologies.

Since its launch, the IPO has granted 321 patents via the Green Channel

The environmental benefit of some inventions, such as a new solar panel or a wind turbine, is largely understood. The IPO is, therefore, likely to continue to allow requests for Green Channel processing of applications relating to inventions of this type.

We recognise, however, that there are inventions where the environmental benefits are perhaps not so obvious. Even very small inventions, in terms of impact on the environment, could have a very positive result when put into practice on a bigger scale. These types of invention will be allowed Green Channel processing as long as the inventor can explain where the environmental benefit lies. For example, an application for a more efficient manufacturing process may be accelerated through the Green Channel if the inventor can explain how the new process uses less energy.

The IPO does not conduct detailed investigations into any assertions made about the “greenness” of an invention and 99 per cent of Green Channel requests are accepted. However, requests will be refused if the environmental benefits are clearly unfounded. Believe it or not, the most frequently refused requests are for inventions which do not obey the laws of physics, for example perpetual motion machines which promise free energy for all.

The Green Channel service also allows inventors to choose to accelerate part of the patent application process, as this may better suit their business plans. But an inventor should be wary before opting for early publication. This is the point at which the details of the invention are made available to the public and usually takes place around 18 months after the application was filed. The caveat in bringing forward publication is that it dramatically cuts down the time available for the applicant to consider the prospects of their invention and their opportunity to avoid making it public.

There are other ways of accelerating a patent application. For example, it is possible to accelerate the process if you become aware that a competitor is going to market a product that you believe would infringe your patent once it is granted. Furthermore, the IPO also has agreements with patent offices in other countries to speed up the process in certain circumstances.

Green and growth are not mutually exclusive; they go hand-in-hand. As a government we are committed to supporting businesses which are creative and businessmen who have bright new ideas. The Green Channel is our way of helping those who want to protect the environment and protect their ideas at the same time. The new superfast patent processing service and the review of existing acceleration services, including the Green Channel, will ensure that we continue to support businesses in the way they most need it.

Viscount Younger of Leckie, a Conservative elected hereditary peer, is responsible for the intellectual property portfolio within the Department for Business Innovation & Skills; he was previously a government whip in the House of Lords.