Q: Are simple mechanical inventions patentable?
A: Yes, very often they are.
To patent or not to patent is an important decision that should not be based on assumptions about what’s patentable.
To qualify for a patent, the ‘invention’ must be sufficiently different from what was previously publicly known. For standard patents, the required difference is known as an ‘inventive step’, whereas innovation patents require an ‘innovative step’. The invention could be a product and/or a process.
The inventive step requirement is a surprisingly low bar; an invention will qualify so long as it’s not obvious. It’s unusual for an Australian patent to be found invalid solely because the invention lacks an inventive step.
That said, the inventive step requirement is still a bar – not all new products and processes will qualify. In a recent Court decision, a simple mechanical invention was considered and held not to qualify.
The invention related to connecting reflector sheets of a light fitting. It involved ‘mushroom studs’ fitted on one of the sheets arranged to engage keyholes formed in the other sheet. After setting out the legal principles and evidence from various industry experts, the Court accepted:
“that in the lighting industry keyhole slots and mushroom studs were a well-known means of joining metal elements and obvious in the relevant sense” (at paragraph 101).
It’s worth emphasising that the Court refers to what is well-known in the lighting industry, e.g. if the evidence showed the slots and studs were well-known in a different context but not in the lighting industry, a different conclusion may well have been reached. For example, the Court may well have considered the invention to qualify for a standard patent.
An innovative step is, generally speaking, an even lower requirement than an inventive step. Whilst the issue was not before the Court, had the patent been an innovation patent instead of a standard patent, it may well have been considered valid.
So, it’s clear that you don’t need to make a major breakthrough in technology to qualify for a patent; patent protection should not be ruled out based on an assumption that the new product or process won’t qualify because it’s simple.
Now, having said all of that, of course it doesn’t follow that every new product or process should be patented. That’s a business decision that involves weighing up the costs and benefits of pursuing patent protection.
We are experienced patent attorneys ideally placed to assist with patent protection. We are always happy to have a free of charge discussion regarding these costs and benefits if you are considering whether patent protection is right for you.