February 7, 2006 6:59 AM PST

U.K. tackles 'trivial patents' issue

The U.K. Patent Office is seeking public comment as part of its examination of how well the current system works and whether too many trivial patents are being granted.

One of the main criteria of patentability under U.K. law is that inventions must "not be obvious to someone with a good knowledge and experience of the subject," according to the U.K. agency. But now it wants to find out whether this requirement meets the needs of inventors, the public at large and the U.K. economy. So late last week, the office launched its request for public comment.

"Are too many 'trivial patents' being granted? Or are innovation and competitiveness best served by easy patenting with low hurdles?" asks the patent agency.

Ron Marchant, chief executive of the U.K. Patent Office, said it is important to strike the right balance with the criterion of inventiveness.

"An inventive step requirement which is too difficult for applicants to achieve could result in inventions that might deserve a patent not receiving protection, thus hindering the applicant in research and investment. Alternatively, the danger of an inventive step which is too easy to meet is that patents could be obtained for small changes or improvements that hamper the legitimate activities of third parties. It is important that they help us to find the best solution," he said in a statement.

Over the last few years, there has been increasing criticism of patent offices around the world for granting trivial patents. Last year, a study found that a quarter of U.S. patent holders thought the quality of patents was "somewhat worse" than three years ago, with the quality of patents granted in the technology industry thought to be worse than in any other major sector.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, an intellectual property campaign group based in Munich, Germany, provides information on a number of software patents granted by the European Patent Office that it considers trivial, including a patent for a progress bar and a menu tab.

In an interview last year, a software manager at a small technology company told ZDNet UK that large companies tend to swamp patent offices with well-worded patent applications for trivial technologies with the knowledge that a certain proportion of them will be passed.

The U.K. Patent Office is accepting public comment until May 31.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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