By Constantinos Psillides
To be granted a patent on an invention is perhaps one of the top achievements for any inventor or researcher, at least on a financial level. The patent holder can license his invention to others, receive royalties or even sell it outright.
The prospect of substantial financial reward inevitably acts as a spur for young scientists, especially as it can finance further research.
But while securing a patent sounds like a great idea, getting there on your own is nearly impossible.
Applying for a patent is a lengthy, time consuming process that requires both an extensive legal and scientific background. The patent applications are in essence legal binding contracts and as such are riddled with possible pitfalls for the inexperienced.
Dr Petros Savva, who teaches at the Cyprus University of Technology (TEPAK) and holds four patents to his name, is familiar with those pitfalls. Savva told the Sunday Mail that a mere word in a more than 30 page long application nearly cost him the rights to one patent. “It was a miniscule error in wording, very easily missed even by someone who is an expert. It nearly cost us dearly but we caught it at the very last minute,” he said.
No surprise, then, that the daunting prospect of going through the process to secure a patent acts as a deterrent for young scientists.
“It is simply not worth it. If your invention isn’t guaranteed to make you money then applying for a patent is quite simply a colossal waste of time and money,” a young post-graduate engineering student told the Sunday Mail. The student, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out that in many occasions the cost of applying dwarfs the potential gains.
“I have lots of ideas. Mainly for improving existing inventions, but I don’t try to patent any of them because I don’t see them turning any substantial profit. At least not one that will compensate for the time and money I have to spend. People who do secure patents mostly are part of research centres or go through universities so the institution takes on the cost. Filing for a patent individually is almost unheard of,” he said.
A short trip to the Intellectual and Industrial Property Section (IIPS) of the Department of Registrar of Companies and Official Receiver to be informed on the procedure shows why.
Anyone interested is required to fill in a patent application and submit a detailed design of the invention accompanied by a detailed description. If everything is in order then the IIPS forwards the application to the European Patent Office (EPO) which acts as a certified search authority. EPO officials would then proceed to examine whether the invention is patentable and if all requirements are met to grant it.
The painstakingly precise process makes it essentially impossible for an inventor to file a patent application without hiring a legal firm or a patent agency that specialises in the field.
When it comes to Cypriot inventors, things get even more complicated. Due to the nature of the application, the legal firm must employ the services of experts who will go through the scientific aspect of the invention, attest to its patentability and assist the lawyer in drafting the application. Enlisting the needed help of the experts drives the cost even higher, since no patent office currently operates on the island.
In total, it costs around €3,000 to file for a local patent – one that applies only to Cyprus – and around €5,000 for a patent applicable to the 36 countries that comprise EPO. Those wanting to patent an invention to include more countries (mainly the US and Japan) have to file a patent application with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The application specifies the countries for which the inventor is interested, paying an additional cost for each one.
These costs are only for applying; securing a patent is far from assured. The patent should then be renewed annually – patents hold for 20 years, 25 for drugs to compensate for the lengthy testing process – totalling a sum of around €20,000 for EPO and local patents. The money is payable regardless of whether the inventor turns any profit from his invention or not.
The IIPS chiefly acts as a traffic warden, directing the applications to EPO and WIPO, both of whom are certified patent search authorities. IIPS is not authorised to validate patents even on a national level, instead referring the task to EPO which increases the cost.
Former Environment Commissioner Charalambos Theopemptou, who now teaches at TEPAK, lays the blame with the government.
“The absence of an efficient way to patent technologies discourages young scientists and if the government is serious about investing in research and development, they should do something about it,” he said. “They need to put in place a mechanism that facilitates the process by providing expert advice and handling the legal aspect. Forcing inventors to resort to patent agencies is the main reason why almost all patent applications come from universities.”
Savva is also in favour of setting up a patent authority in Cyprus, arguing that it would greatly reduce the amount of time needed to process the application. “It would be great if the government could manage that. I do understand why applying should cost so much but the amount of time needed to process the application is simply unacceptable,” he said.
It takes six months to two years for the patent application process to be completed.
The government has responded by tasking the Research Promotion Foundation (RPF) with setting up an administrative body to tackle the issue of patents.
RPF director general Dr Vassilis Tsakalos, told the Sunday Mail that the body is in the process of establishing a technology transfer office, a division that would employ the skills and knowledge of experts along with the technologies and facilities needed to lend inventors a helping hand.
“Filing for a patent is a complex procedure with many parameters, especially when it comes to the more technical issues. Our office will step in and provide all interested parties with all the help needed to cover those parameters,” said the director, noting that the RPF is in the last stages of setting up the technology transfer office.
Meanwhile, local universities have decided to move ahead on their own.
Dr Costas Costa, also of TEPAK, told the Sunday Mail that his university is in the final stages of setting up its own in-house tech transfer office to process any application originating from the university.
“And we are not the only ones. Other universities are also moving towards that direction, having realised the benefits of taking charge of the process. We have everything set up, the procedure is outlined and failsafes have been introduced to protect intellectual property,” he said. “The only thing left to be up and running is for the process to be green-lighted by the university.”
The in-house technology transfer office will provide inventors with experts that would help draft their application as well as trained staff that would deal with the paperwork. Removing the need of resorting to a patent agency is expected to drive the cost down and reduce both bureaucracy and the time needed to process applications.
It remains to be seen, however, whether these new arrangements will usher in a new era of discovery for Cypriot scientists and inventors.