FAQ - Patent & IP basics

What are patents and what do they protect?

Patents protect technical inventions, for example a product, a process or an apparatus, in all fields of technology. For an invention to qualify for patent protection, it must be novel, involve an inventive step and be industrially applicable. A patent is an exclusive right, meaning the patent owner can decide who can use the patented invention and how, and prevent third parties from exploiting it commercially. In return, the owner has to fully disclose the invention when applying for the patent. Patent applications and granted patents are published, which makes them a prime source of technical information.

Where is a patent valid and how long does it last?

A patent is valid in the particular country in which it is granted and for a certain period of time, generally 20 years from the date of filing the patent application.

Further information on patentability can be found in the Guide for applicants, Chapter 3 ‒ Patentability.

Where can I find information on utility models, copyright, trade marks and designs?

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 European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) at:

European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO)
(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

I have an invention. How can I find out if something similar already exists and has been patented?

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 more than 140 million patent documents ‒ both published patent applications and granted patents ‒ from around the world.

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