Patents protect technical inventions in all fields of technology. They are valid in individual countries, for a specified period. Patents give holders the right to prevent third parties from commercially exploiting their invention. In return, applicants must fully disclose their invention. Patent applications and granted patents are published, which makes them a prime source of technical information.
Under the European Patent Convention (EPC), patents are granted only for inventions that are new, involve an inventive step and are industrially applicable. An invention meets these requirements if it:
Discoveries, mathematical methods, computer programs and business methods as such are not regarded as inventions. Surgical and therapeutic procedures, diagnostic methods and new plant or animal varieties are completely excluded from patentability.
The EPC does not recognise inventions whose commercial exploitation would be contrary to 'ordre public' or ethical principles. These include, for example, means of cloning human life or the use of human embryos for commercial or industrial purposes.
Further information on patentability can be found in the Guide for applicants, Part 1, point 27 ff.
Generally speaking, utility models protect technical innovations which might not qualify for a patent, and can be protected in some countries through registration.
Copyright protects creations such as literary text, musical compositions and works of art, broadcasts and computer software against unauthorised copying and certain other uses.
Trade marks allow brands of products or services to be distinguished. They may be made up of two- or three-dimensional signs such as letters, numbers, words, shapes, logos or pictures, or even sounds.
Designs and models protect the visual appearance of industrial products, i.e. their shape and colour.
You can find information on utility models, trade marks, copyright and designs from the national intellectual property (IP) offices of the EPO's member states.
For information on trade marks and designs in the European Union, contact the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) at:
Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM)
(Trade Marks and Designs)
Avenida de Europa, 4
03008 Alicante, Spain
Tel.: +34 (0)96 513-9100
Fax: +34 (0)96 513-1344
Patent offices of member states
One way of checking whether or not your product or idea has already been invented and patented by somebody else is to consult the EPO's free search service Espacenet. The database contains 90 million patent documents - most of them patent applications rather than granted patents - from around the world.