When should I file a patent application to protect my idea?

Q) I’ve developed a man made textile during my university course that has a number of innovative features that make it both hard wearing and light weight. I would like to look into manufacturing it or selling the idea to an established outdoor clothing company, but the textile is not currently protected from being copied so should I be arranging some sort of intellectual property protection for it first or is that done at a later date? If now, what form should this take, a patent?

A) Yes, since your idea relates to how the textile functions, not its appearance, the appropriate form of protection would indeed be a patent.

We are often asked when a patent application should be filed and there are a number of factors to consider. 

The safest course of action from a patenting perspective is to file an application as early as possible.  Having an application filed can also help to attract investment.

For an invention to be patentable, it must be new and inventive over everything that has been publicly disclosed before the application is filed.  If you delay filing an application, there is a risk that some one else might publish the idea, thereby preventing you from being able to patent it. 

You must also make sure that your idea is kept secret before an application is filed.

However, helpfully, you would only have to file in one country (e.g. the UK) initially.  If you also wanted to protect your idea abroad, you could wait for up to a year before filing further applications.  These applications would benefit from the filing date of the first application so you would not lose out by waiting.  Filing an international "PCT" application is another way to delay costs.

Of course, not everyone files a patent application early on and if you are unsure about the commercial prospects for your idea you may prefer to wait.  However, if you wait, you should ensure that anyone you talk to about your idea signs a non-disclosure agreement, to make sure that it is kept secret.

Catherine Noronha, Associate
First published in the Financial Times, May 2013