Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the human mind that benefit from the legal protection of a property right. They are essentially intangible assets. The main legal mechanisms for protecting IP are copyrights, patents, and trademarks, and cover a variety of creations, from literary and artistic works to inventions and trade secrets. See for a general introduction to IP.

The WIPO IP Handbook provides further information for all types of intellectual property.


What is an invention?

An invention is a product or process providing a novel and inventive solution to a technical problem. We generally refer to as invention, intellectual property which can be protected by patent.

Some examples of inventions at CERN:

  • Non-evaporable getters for creating and maintaining a vacuum.
  • Nanostructured target for radioisotope production.
  • A design for a compact low-energy high-frequency Radio-Frequency Quadrupole.


What is a patent?

A patent is a time-limited intellectual property right granted by a government which provides the patent owner(s) exclusive rights on the patented invention (manufacture, use, sale, import). It does not, however, guarantee that the owner can use or exploit it since access to other patented inventions may be necessary for such use or exploitation Patents can be used to protect products, processes, or use of a product. A patent should describe the technical problem to be solved, how the invention solves it, and how this offered solution differs from the known prior art.


What makes an invention patentable?

An invention must, in general, fulfill the following conditions to be protected by a patent. It must be industrially applicable; it must show an element of novelty, that is, some new characteristic which is not known in the body of existing knowledge in its technical field. This body of existing knowledge is called "prior art". The invention must also show an inventive step, meaning that it would not have been obvious to a person with average knowledge of the technical field. Finally, its subject matter must be accepted as "patentable" under law. In many countries, scientific theories, mathematical methods, plant or animal varieties, discoveries of natural substances, business methods, or methods for medical treatment (as opposed to medical products) are generally not patentable.

Full set of FAQ on patents at:


What is considered a public disclosure of an invention?

Any communication of an invention to the public is considered, in the context of patents, a public disclosure. The disclosure can happen in writing, orally or even just by exhibiting the invention publically (e.g. at a fair trade). As long as the recipient of the information is not bound by confidentiality, the communication is considered to be public.

All public disclosures before the date of filing of a patent application are considered to be part of the prior art, i.e. the inventions against which the patentability will be assessed. Therefore technical journals, poster sessions, slides, lectures, seminars, letters, even conversations can count as a bar to patentability.

For these reasons, if you are considering patent protection, a patent application should be filed before you make any public disclosures about your invention. The CERN Knowledge Transfer group can advise you on this.

When are patents useful?

Patents are useful to reduce the risks taken when making major initial investments to bring innovative technologies on the market. This is even more so when industrial partners licence CERN technologies and make considerable investments to transform an early-stage innovative technology into a commercial product. 

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection which comes into existence automatically with the creation of the work. It protects literary and artistic works, in a broad sense, which are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves, and gives their authors exclusive rights to reproduce the copyrighted material. Copyrighted works include computer programs.

What is a trademark?

A trademark is any sign that individualizes the goods of a given enterprise and distinguishes them from the goods of its competitors. It may take many forms: word, logo, slogan, symbol, design—or any combination of these. A trademark can acquire protection either through registration or through use. It is generally accepted that the sign must be distinctive, and not deceptive or descriptive.

What is a Trade Secret?

A Trade Secret is information which is not generally known (a formula, manufacturing process, method of doing business, or technical know-how), and which is kept confidential, so that it gives its holder a competitive advantage.

What is a licence?

A licence is permission to perform acts which the granting party has the right to otherwise prohibit. In the context of intellectual property, it is the grant by the owner of the intellectual property rights to a licensee to use the intellectual property subject to certain conditions.


What does open source software mean?

The basic principle underlying Open Source Software is that the software source code is made available, allowing others to modify the software. But this is only one aspect. An Open Source licence means license conditions that are compatible with the principles defined by the Open Source Initiative, for instance free redistribution, or no discrimination against persons, groups, or fields of endeavour (for more information see


What is the difference between open source software and free software?

Open source software and free software are different terms for software which comes with certain rights, or freedoms, for the user. The Free Software Foundation maintains the Free Software Definition, explaining that the term ‘free’ should be understood as ‘free speech’, not ‘free beer’. Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program's users have four essential freedoms ( Open Source Software and Free Software describe two approaches towards free software.


Thanks to a team of professionals, the Knowledge Transfer Group supports CERN in every matter related to Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Management.

We are glad to provide the CERN community with fundamentals of Intellectual Property. If you have any further questions, please contact the KT Group.



Interesting links:




Google Patents – USA patents:

European patent office :

National Intellectual Property Offices (link is external)’s list:

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