There are a number of factors to do with confidentiality that must be considered when considering your invention and potential patents. With very few exceptions around the world, a patent will be invalid if an invention is disclosed publicly before a patent application is filed. Non-confidential disclosures of your invention to family, friends, suppliers, customers or anybody else must not be made before an application is filed as this can jeopardise your patent.
Anybody you speak to about your invention must agree in advance that it is confidential and that they will not use the information or pass it on. Outside of your immediate circle of family and, possibly friends, you should have a written confidentiality agreement signed. The safest thing is, however, to limit any disclosures until after your patent application has been successfully filed.
If you or someone else has already disclosed details of your invention, you should inform your patent attorney and provide as much detail about the disclosure as you can. In many cases the disclosure may have been treated as confidential anyway, but it is important that you allow your attorney to assess the situation. Even if, due to the disclosure of information, patent protection cannot be obtained in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, there will be other countries where it may be possible. For example, in the United States, a patent can be filed up to a year after your own disclosures.
Once a patent application has been filed, you have a “priority date” for your invention, which can be relied on in most countries of the world. A priority date refers to the earliest filing date in a family of patent applications.
In theory, once you have your priority date you can disclose your invention without damaging your chances of obtaining patents around the world, provided you take action within twelve months of your priority date, however, ideally you want to keep your invention confidential for as long as it feasible commercially. Your patent application will be published by the Patent Office eighteen months after your priority date but until then you should not disclose it unless you and your patent attorney are certain that the time is right.
The timing of unveiling details of your invention is important as, after the patent application has been filed, you may still make developments. These developments could be important commercially and/or from a patent perspective. It may be necessary to file one or more additional “top up” patent applications including the new material. As before, you should not disclose a development publicly until a top up patent application has been filed for it.
It is important to note that even if you intend to discuss only the basic invention publicly, there is still the risk that you will prejudice protection for the new development.
If you believe someone has disclosed information about your invention in breach of confidence, you should let your patent attorney know immediately. It may be possible to retrieve the situation but there will be a deadline of six months from the date of disclosure.
Finally, everything you discuss with us / your patent attorney will be treated in confidence. There is no need for a special confidentiality agreement.