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Information and strategies for patent searching.

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Patent searching can be tough. The guide provides tips, tricks, and resources to be successful. To search for patents, it is helpful to know some background information about patents.

U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8: "The Congress shall have the power to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

Why Search for patents?

Why search:

  • Research new and innovative technologies.
  • Competitive intelligence, including obtaining background on technologies not covered in the journal literature.
  • The majority of formally published literature is from academia since corporations have to protect their interests ($).
  • It has been said that up to 80% of the information in patents is not published elsewhere.


Example Uses of Patent Searches:

  • Patentability Searches - Assess novelty.
    • "I have an idea for an invention that I want to patent."
  • Research & Development - Evaluate the current state of a technology, in order to develop new or improve upon existing products & processes.
    • "I am trying to come up with something new in my field, and want to make sure I am not reinventing."
  • Technical Solutions - Solve specific problems, locate sources of expertise, & identify technology.
    • "I cannot identify this object and there is some weird number on the side that says "US #,###,###“."
  • Economic Trends - Survey markets, monitor & forecast activities of competitors or industries.
  • Financial Risk - Avoid duplicating costly research; judge an innovation prior to venturing capital.
  • Legal Status - Conduct infringement or opposition proceedings; identify licensing opportunities.
  • Historical Data - Study a time period, the history of technology & social changes.
    • "I am tracing the history of ???, and I want to look at the history of its development."
  • Marketing Resources - Compile mailing lists & databases; locate inventors or manufacturers.
  • Genealogical Research - Research & document family ancestors & accomplishments.
    • "My relative invented an item for his employer in the 1970's. Can you help me find this patent?"
  • General Information - Satisfy lifelong learning & curiosity.


Search Trivia: U.S. Patent Examiners spend about 12 hours investigating each application and use on average 38 databases.

What is a Patent?

Two things are often confused with patents but are very different.

Copyright: Form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, & certain other intellectual works, both published & unpublished.

Trademark: Word, name, symbol, or device that is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods & to distinguish them from the goods of others.

What is patent in the United States?

  • Grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the USPTO
    • Right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing
  • The term is generally 20 years from the date of application in the U.S., if maintenance fees are paid (Design patents = 15 years.)
  • Effective only within the U.S., the U.S. territories, and the U.S. possessions
  • Enforcement is up to the patentee
  • The first to "file" will be granted the patent if the invention was not previously disclosed.


Types of Patents

  • Utility: functional, novelty
  • Design: new, original, and ornamental design
  • Plant: Asexually reproduced plant varieties


What can be patented in the U.S.?

  • “Any new & useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new & useful improvement,”  subject to the conditions and requirements of the law.
  • Practically anything made by man or process of the making
  • Required: useful & operative (must work)
  • New, novelty, non-obvious: Not described, known, or existing already (various variations on this); sufficiently different
  • Atomic Energy Act of 1954 excludes patents used solely in the utilization of special nuclear material or atomic energy in an atomic weapon.
  • NOT: Mere idea or suggestion
  • NOT: Law of nature, natural phenomena, abstract ideas
  • You cannot get a patent if your invention has already been publicly disclosed. Therefore, a search of all previous public disclosures should be conducted. A search of foreign patents and printed publications should also be conducted. 

Parts of a U.S. Patent


The Disclosure

  • Drawings (as needed for clarity)
  • Background of the Invention
  • Brief Summary of the Invention
  • Detailed Description of the Invention
  • Claim(s)


Non-provisional application includes:

  • A written document which comprises a specification (description & claims), & an oath or declaration.
  • Drawing, if necessary
  • Filing, search, & examination fees.
  • Specification must conclude with a claim or claims particularly pointing out the subject matter which the applicant regards as the invention.


Provisional application includes:

  • Designed to provide a lower cost first patent filing & to give U.S. applicants parity with foreign applicants.
  • Claims & oath or declaration are NOT required.
  • Provides the means to establish an early effective filing date in a patent application & permits the usage of the term “Patent Pending”.
  • May not be filed for design inventions.
  • Are NOT examined on their merits.
  • Will become abandoned by the operation of law 12 months from its filing date.



  • Applicant may request that the application not be published, but only if the invention has not been & will not be the subject of an application filed in a foreign country that requires publication 18 months after filing or under the Patent Cooperation Treaty.
  • Following publication, the application for patent is no longer held in confidence & any member of the public may request access to the entire file history of the application.
  • As a result of publication, an applicant may assert provisional rights.


Kind Codes:

  • Codes include a letter, and often a number, used to distinguish the kind of patent document & the level of publication.

Summary of USPTO Kinds Codes

(No longer used as of January 2, 2001.)

Kind Code

Document Type


A Patent (Before 2001) Replaced A1, A2...A9
P Plant Patent (Before 2001) Replaced P1, P2...P9
B1, B2, B3...B9 Reexamination Certificate (Before 2001) Replaced by B1 or B2

Reexamination Certification: Upon completion of a PTO reexamination proceeding, the Commissioner will issue and publish a certificate canceling any claim of the patent finally determined to be patentable, confirming any claim of the patent determined to be patentable, and incorporating in the patent any amended or new claim determined to be patentable. These certificates are the same for normal or reissue patents.

Summary of Worldwide Standard for Kind Codes

(Used in the U.S. as of January 2, 2001.)

Kind Code

Document Type


A1 Utility Patent Application Published on or after January 2, 2001
A2 Second or subsequent publication  
A9 Correction published Utility Patent Application  
B1 Utility Patent Grant (no pre-grant publication) Issued on or after January 2, 2001
B2 Utility Patent Grant (with pre-grant publication) Issued on or after January 2, 2001.
C1, C2...C9 Reexamination Certificate Issued on or after January 2, 2001. NOTE: "n" represents a value 1 through 9 denoting the publication level.
E Reissue Patent  
H Statutory Invention Registration (SIR) Patent Document Began with the December 3, 1985 issue.
P1 Plant Patent Application Published on or after January 2, 2001
P2 Plant Patent Grant (no pre-grant publication) Issued on or after January 2, 2001
P3 Plant Patent Grant (with pre-grant publication) Issued on or after January 2, 2001
P4 Second or subsequent publication of a Plant Patent Application  
P9 Correction publication of a Plant Patent Application  
S Design Patent  


How to Cite a Patent


Reference list:

Lastname, Initial. Initial. (year). U. S. Patent No. 123,456. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In text citation:

U. S. Patent No. 123,456 (year)

(U. S. Patent No. 123,456, year)


Use last name, first name, and initials for each inventor. Year is year patent was published. Finally, identify an official source where patent can be retreived.

Extra Things to Know about Patents

Role of United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO): Grants patents and trademarks. Offers IP protection and fosters respect of. Advises the president of the United States, the secretary of commerce, and U.S. government agencies on intellectual property (IP) policy. Works with international agencies and organizations. Provides education, training, and resources.

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