IP Information & News

Should I protect my manufacturing process with a patent?

Tom Baker

By Tom Baker

Partner

Patents aren’t only used to protect new product inventions — they can also safeguard methods, manufacturing processes and even new uses for products. A manufacturing process has a chance of being patented if it contains a new or different step that results in an improvement in the process or final product. But is it better to patent a manufacturing process, or simply keep it secret?

Here’s a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of process patents.

The advantages of patenting a manufacturing process

In return for disclosing your inventive manufacturing process in a patent, you’re able to prevent others from using the same process for a period of up to 20 years. If your process gives you a commercial edge, the exclusivity provided by a patent can be a significant advantage. The patent has the further benefit of being a valuable company asset that can be licensed, borrowed against or sold.

Companies are sometimes reluctant to disclose details of their manufacturing processes in a patent application. However, it’s notoriously difficult to keep information truly confidential. While there are famous examples of this (such as the Coca Cola recipe), there are also many examples of disgruntled employees leaving to join competitors and revealing all about their former employer’s confidential processes. While most employers will have confidentiality clauses in place for this very purpose, they can be difficult to enforce. Patent protection provides a robust legal right that enables you to prevent competitors from using your methods or processes, whether they acquired the details from an ex-employee, as a breach of confidence or developed the process independently.

There are also, of course, the other usual benefits of obtaining patent protection. In the UK, via the Patent Box scheme, you could benefit from paying a lower rate of corporation tax on the profits you generate from products that are produced using the patented process. In addition, securing a patent could greatly improve your marketing arsenal, as it creates a buzz around a product and demonstrates cutting-edge technology. It may also help you to attract further investment opportunities.

The disadvantages of patenting a manufacturing process

To secure a patent for any invention, it’s necessary to disclose it in enough detail that it can be reproduced by someone knowledgeable in that field. This may be detrimental to your business, as you will be revealing to your competitors how you’re performing your manufacturing process. If you don’t file a patent, it’s possible that this information could be treated as a trade secret and kept confidential through careful internal management. However, as discussed above, this can be difficult in practice.

It can also be hard to police a patent for a manufacturing process since manufacturing is typically performed in private. There may be no way of telling, just by looking at a product, whether it has been made using your patented manufacturing process. While you may have your suspicions, proving infringement can be more difficult than for a product patent. Therefore, the benefits of patent protection should be weighed against the cost of obtaining a patent and the potential difficulties in policing your rights effectively.

One size doesn’t fit all

Ideally, before seeking patent protection for your manufacturing process, you should consider whether patent protection can be obtained for the product itself or the equipment that performs the process.

The decision of whether to file a patent solely for a manufacturing process involves balancing the advantages the patent provides against the real risks of disclosing your proprietary process and the issues of policing it. A careful review of the issues involved, with the assistance of an experienced patent attorney, is always advised.

For expert advice on patenting processes, get in touch with me at teb@udl.co.uk.

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