There seems to be confusion among many about patentability of a circuit in India and around the world. Then there comes the confusion of whether you can patent a layout of an integrated circuit. On top of this all, in the discussion of circuits & layouts, copyright creeps in.
To put these questions to rest, I have decided to write this article as a one stop solution.
So, can you patent a circuit in India?
Yes, you can patent a circuit, electric or electronic, in India. Just like any other invention if the circuit meets the patentability requirements i.e. novelty, inventiveness, avoiding non-patentable subject matter, etc.. laid in the Indian Patent Act & Rules, it can be patented.
In fact, not only in India, but around the world, the circuits can be patented.
The layout of an integrated circuit is different kind of subject matter. There is no copyright, patent, or design registration arrangement for the layouts of integrated circuits.
So, what do you do to protect your layout-design for semiconductor chips, which is very much a creation of your mind and hence, needs to be protected as intellectual property? In India, layouts are covered under the Semiconductor Integrated Circuits Layout-Design Act (SICLDA) 2000.
That is enough discussion for the protection of the layout of integrated circuits. Let’s now address the main question first about patenting circuits in India, and we will deal with the layout in the later part of this article.
Can You Patent A Circuit In India?
The short answer, as we have already seen, is affirmative. But for further clarity on the topic, let’s take a deep dive into what goes on behind the scenes to ascertain whether a circuit can be given a patent or not.
For this, we need to invoke Section 2(1)(j) of the Indian Patent Act, 1970 (as amended). As per Section 2(1)(j): “invention” means a new product or process involving an inventive step and capable of industrial application;
Your circuit will come under the product category. Moreover, if your circuit is new or novel, has an inventive step, and can be made or used in industry, it will have a great chance of getting a patent.
From Section 2(1)(j) of the Indian Patent Act, we come across the three following criteria/ requirements that your circuit needs to fulfill.
- The new product means that your circuit is new over any other existing circuit.
- The meaning of inventive step is that your circuit has:
- technical advancement and not obvious to a person skilled in the art or,
- economic significance and not obvious to a person skilled in the art or,
- technical advancement and economic significance and not obvious to a person skilled in the art
- The meaning of being capable of industrial application is that your circuit can be made or used in an industry I.e. your circuit is useful.
We recommend you to read our article 6 Requirements To Get A Patent In India the requirements to be able to fully understand how the circuit can be patented. Nonetheless, we will try to make the concept clear in this article itself through real-life examples.
Out of these 6 requirements listed in the referenced article in the previous paragraph, our circuit needs to fulfill all of the 3 requirements indicated in Section 2(1)(j). The other three requirements are situation based and apply on case to case basis.
Now, suppose you develop a novel circuit that cuts the number of wires in a system by half, then your circuit certainly has economic significance. Further, if it is found to be not obvious then your circuit will a chance of getting a patent.
Let’s take examples of circuits that have been granted patents by the Indian Patent Office and then understand why they were accorded a patent.
Note: You can look for the file history on IPINDIA of the Indian patents for circuits that we are going to discuss next.
Example 1: Patent No. IN291584 – LED OUTAGE DETECTION CIRCUIT
Application Number: 6827/CHENP/2009.
This patent claims to provide a simple, cost-effective LED outage detection circuit that is suitable to be used with an LED that may be dimmed.
So, how did this circuit shown below in fig. 1 managed to get a patent?
The procedure is no different to determine patentability than other types of inventions. Let’s see how this circuit invention got a patent or met the requirements laid out for patentability in India.
a) Novelty: For example, if we look at the first examination report, we find that the examiner found the claimed circuit to be new or novel fulfilling the first requirement. In other words, the circuit demonstrated novelty over the prior arts cited.
b) Inventive Step: The examiner did not find the circuit inventive in the first examination report and cited three prior arts to support his argument. It is normal for an invention to be rejected on various grounds in the first examination report, FER.
However, in the subsequent steps of examination, the claimed invention, i.e., the circuit, was cleared to have an inventive step.
This became possible because the claimed circuit was not obvious over the cited prior arts. Furthermore, we have seen that the claimed circuit was simple and cost-effective over prior arts, and it solved the problem that arts could not.
So, since this circuit met the requirement of being inventive as indicated in Section 2(1)(j), it was declared inventive.
c) Industrial application: Assessing that a simple, cost-effective LED outage detection circuit would have the capability of industrial application is not difficult based on the specification of the invention. So, the examiner found the invention useful.
This way, the circuit passed the test of being capable of industrial application.
Since the claimed circuit met the patentability requirements, eventually it was granted a patent. You can go through the granted independent claim 1 of the patent as shown below:
Example 2: Patent No. IN389111 – DRIVER CIRCUIT FOR TRANSMITTER
Application no.: 201641041422
The patent claims to provide a driver circuit for a transmitter in a serial communication link as shown in fig. 3 below.
The granted independent claim 1 for the circuit above is produced below for your reference.
Again, if we look at this circuit, it was given a patent because it met all the patentability criteria laid out by the Indian Patent Act, 1970 (as amended).
The driver circuit in question provided an advantage over prior arts by overcoming the shortcomings of the previous driver circuits.
The invention provided “a driver circuit that varies an impedance of a transmitter and enables a high voltage swing of an output data signal without damaging an inverter of the driver circuit and without significantly increasing the area occupied and the power consumed by the driver circuit”.
When we look at the first examination report, FER, we find that the patent examiner cited two prior art documents and assessed the patentability requirements as follows:
a) Novelty: The examiner found the claimed driver circuit to be novel when compared to the cited prior arts.
b) Inventive Step: The examiner rejected the driver circuit arguing that it doesn’t have an inventive step in view of the cited prior arts. The FER stated that the invention was obvious for a person skilled in the art in light of the cited documents. Such rejection is normal in the first set of objections from the patent office.
You can always overcome such an objection either by convincing the patent examiner that his reasoning is misplaced and your invention is actually inventive or by amending your claims as per the provisions of the Indian Patent Act.
Eventually, the objection was overcome, and the claimed driver circuit was found to be inventive.
c) Industrial Application: Usually, it is the specification of the invention that hints about the usability of the invention.
For e.g., the present invention provides a driver circuit for transmitter in serial communication. Further, in “Field of the invention”, “Description of related art”, and “summary” we get the idea about what has come before this invention, to what field this invention relates, and what are its advantages.
If you go through the specification, you will understand that the application should have had no problem passing the test of “capable of industrial application”.
Thus, a patent for the circuit application was granted since it fulfilled all of the patentability requirements.
So far, we have seen 2 circuits that were granted patents. If you further want to see more such examples then you may check out a few more applications on IPINDIA 201847036841- STARTING CIRCUIT FOR STARTING AIR CONDITIONER AND AIR CONDITIONER, 201937030358- VOLTAGE REGULATION CIRCUIT, etc.
It is not India alone where circuits are patentable. Circuits can be patented in most countries, just like you’d get a patent for a product subject to the patentability criteria of the land.
Now that we have discussed circuits and patents, where does the copyright comes into the scene? Can you copyright a circuit?
Can You Copyright Circuits, PCBs, ICs?
Well, you can’t copyright a circuit, however, the manual of the circuit, drawings, schematics, and netlist of the circuit may be protected under copyright.
Copyright is not an effective tool to protect your schematic, PCB layout resulting from the schematic, etc. because it protects only your way of implementation. For example, if tomorrow someone decides to redraw your design by hand to create a new network, he can do so. The same is true for the layout-designs for semiconductor chips, i.e., ICs, but luckily chips have a sui generis right to protection in most countries.
When it comes to protection, PCBs are at the disadvantage and currently there is no effective legal tool by which you can claim protection for your PCB design.
PCBs can’t be patented for the simple reason that the PCBs have a hard time passing Inventive Step Criteria. However, there are ways by which you can protect your PCB IP without having to resort to legal tools which are anyway not that effective in case when it comes to protecting PCB IP.
We have dealt with IP protection for layout-designs of semiconductor chips and PCB layouts in detail: Can You Patent Layout of Integrated Circuit in India?
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