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Intellectual Property

An introduction to intellectual property, such as patents, copyright, and trademarks

What is a patent?

A patent is a type of intellectual property right that protects inventors and their inventions. A patent is typically issued by a national government to the inventor or his/her assignee and grants the inventor exclusive rights to manufacture, use, or sell his or her invention for a set period of time in exchange for full public disclosure of the invention. Patent protection in one country does not necessarily extend to others, depending on international treaties in force at that time. In most cases, the inventor will need to file for a patent in each country where he/she wants patent protection, or through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

A typical patent document or application includes background information (the 'state of the art'), to prove that the invention is new and non-obvious; the nature of any technical problems solved by the invention; a detailed description of the invention and how it work, to prove that the invention is useful or industrially applicable; and illustrations of the invention where appropriate. All of this taken together should provide enough information that anybody having average knowledge in the field of the invention would be able to reproduce the invention.

It is important to understand that a patent does NOT grant the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention. Once a patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent through the courts without the aid of the patenting authority.

Patent Jargon

Patents are a very old type of document. As such they have their own jargon:

  • Abstract: A brief, usually one-paragraph description of the invention written in plain English.
  • Assignee: Patents held by companies or organizations are assigned to them by the inventor/employee. This makes the company the assignee.
  • Claims: Claims define the scope of the patent.  They consist of a tersely worded description of the underlying invention and its purpose.
  • Inventor: The inventor or inventors are always individuals--never corporations or organizations.
  • Prior Art: Any previous inventions or discoveries related to the invention being patented.  References may be made to any type of source, such as other patents, journal articles, or books
  • Specification: A detailed description of the preferred version of the invention that describes its functions and features in sufficient detail that the invention can be realized by anybody with average skill or knowledge in that field.
  • Summary: A description of the invention that captures its essential functionality.

Patent Databases

Patent searching is best accomplished using specialized patent databases. The following are all highly recommended:

Patent Searching Tips

There are three ways to search patents: by patent number, by patent classification, or by keyword. The patent classification system is very complex and confusing to use. See the USPTO classification system here. For this reason, it is seldom used except by patent experts and patent attorneys. Most patent searching is now done by keyword--or number if the number is known.

Here are some tips for improving your search results:

  1. Use the European Patent Office's worldwide patent search in addition to (or in place of) USPTO or Google patents.
    • The USPTO database does not provide keyword searching for patents issued before 1976.
    • For a variety of reasons, an invention may not be patented in the U.S. The existence of a relevant foreign patent may disqualify you from getting a patent.
    • Many overseas patent offices issue patents faster than the USPTO. Searching world patents is especially important in rapidly developing fields like electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc.
  2. Use search fields. Search fields allow you to focus your search on specific parts of the patent document to improve your results. Some useful fields are abstract, specification, title, TASK pyramidinventor, and assignee. See the next box for definitions of these terms. Selecting what field to search has a big effect on your results as shown in the illustration at right.Although as you move up the pyramid you get fewer results, the results you get are usually more relevant, Generally, with patents, searching the abstract or specification provide the best results.
  3. For more tips on searching patents, see the library's guide to Discovering the State of the Art.

An excellent resource for learning more about how to conduct a patent search can be found in the book "Keyword patent searching online: a workbook" by Gerald R. Black. this book is available in the Galvin Library's reference collection, call number REF.T210.B53x2002.

Patent resources

These websites provide more information on patents and the patenting process:

U.S. Patents & Patent Law

In the United States, patents are currently granted for a period of 20 years starting from the date the patent was filed with the USPTO and dependent on the payment of maintenance fees. U.S. patents are effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions. U.S. Patent law recognizes three distinct types of patents:

Utility Patents protect useful processes, machines, articles of manufacture, and compositions of matter. Some examples: fiber optics, computer hardware, medications. This is the type of patent most people think of when they think of patents.

Design Patents guard against the unauthorized use of new, original, and ornamental designs for manufactured goods. The look of an athletic shoe, a bicycle helmet, the Star Wars characters are all protected by design patents.

Plant Patents are the way we protect invented or discovered, asexually reproduced plant varieties.