This is not an easy question to answer briefly! You are always welcome to use our contact page, or to contact us by email or telephone, for a free and confidential reaction from us on any practical question of patentability, but let us try to give some guidance.
Firstly, don’t be put off by the word invention itself.
There is a tendency to think of inventions as being necessarily ground breaking and somehow different in kind rather than degree from anything that has gone before. This is not the sense in which the word is used in patent law. The vast majority of patents are granted for inventions that are evolutionary rather than revolutionary – incremental improvements to existing technologies rather than new fields of technology altogether. Often the development that justifies patent grant is in fact relatively minor.
One good guide is to ask whether there is some technical problem that has been solved in a new way. If so, there may well be a patentable invention.
Inventions can lie in improvements to a physical product but they can equally well relate to a method or process for doing something.
To be the subject of a valid patent, an invention must – among other things, and at the time of filing of the patent application – be new, in the strict sense that it has never been made available to the public anywhere in the world. It must also be more than just an obvious modification of any such publicly known technology. This question of obviousness is the subject of much legal argument but it is worth saying that the bar is not set all that high.
There are some categories of subject matter that are not to be patented. In the UK and Europe these include methods of treatment of the human or animal body, mathematical methods, discoveries, scientific theories, methods of doing business, and rules for playing games as such. However these exclusions need very careful consideration. Their scope has been considered in case law over some decades and is much less clear than one might first assume. We recommend taking expert advice – which we are happy of course to provide – rather than assuming that any particular development is excluded.
An extreme example of this is the field of software. In Europe and the UK the letter of the law states that computer programs as such are not patentable inventions. In truth, however, software that solves a real problem, even a problem solely related to the computer’s function, can be the subject of a valid patent. Again, expert advice should be taken before decisions are made.