The UK's Intellectual Property Office has launched an online search facility called Ipsum, to help people find information on patents and patent applications.
On Thursday, the IPO said the free online patent information and document inspection service would benefit "businesses researching patents, patent attorneys working for clients protecting their IP rights and potential inventors looking for the best way to find information on patent applications".
Prior to Ipsum's release, each document request cost £5. Delivery times sometimes meant documents were already out of date by the time they were received.
"Ipsum is free so it removes unnecessary costs for businesses," intellectual property minister Baroness Wilcox said in a statement. "Patent examiners around the world will also benefit as they can now immediately understand why the UK Intellectual Property Office did, or did not, grant a patent. This could help reduce the global backlog of applications benefiting UK business hoping to get their patents processed in another country."
The launch of Ipsum may also answer some of the concerns expressed in Ian Hargreaves's review of the UK's intellectual property regime. Hargreaves, all of whose recommendations have been accepted by the government, had called for patent backlogs to be lessened in order to lead to higher-quality patents.
Hargreaves also said that the UK, which does not allow most software innovations to be patented, should continue to resist doing so.
However, a High Court judgement this week has made it easier to obtain some software patents in the UK.
The oilfield services company Halliburton won an appeal on Wednesday over the patentability of its design and simulation software, which is used to make drill bits. Halliburton had previously made four applications to the IPO, only to be told that its inventions were not patentable as they covered methods of performing a "mental act" — in other words, they simply automated what an engineer could work out in his or her head.
Judge Birss of the Patents Court decided that the software was "more than a computer program as such", as it represented a method of designing a drill bit that went beyond a human thought process. "The claimed method cannot be performed by purely mental means and that is the end of the matter," Birss said, ruling that computer-implemented methods "cannot fall within the mental act exclusion".
Birss also said that, under the law, "computer-implemented inventions are just as patentable in the UK" as in the European Patent Office (EPO), which is perceived by some as being more permissive regarding software patents. However, he was careful not to "interpret out of existence" the exclusion, found in both the UK Patents Act and the European Patent Convention, for "computer programs as such".