Subject Guides

Patent and Trademark Basics

This guide is intended to help you understand patents and trademarks. It provides basic definitions, guidance on how to read, and searching techniques for locating patents. The information is for guidance only, and does not serve as legal advice. Please consult a licensed lawyer for legal assistance.

Patent Definition

A patent for an invention is a grant of property right by the Government to the inventor. In order to be issued a patent, the patentee must file specifications and a detailed description of the invention, sufficient to enable anyone skilled in the art to make use of the invention. These descriptions are later published by the government as patents.

For more information about patents, visit the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Why search the patent literature?

  • Explore state-of-the-art technology
  • Avoid duplication of research efforts
  • To learn how something works (diagrams, detailed description)
  • To find information on a company’s activities, or identify experts in a field
  • Gain protection for an idea or invention
  • It is estimated that 70-90% of technical information disclosed in patents appear no place else

Challenges of Patent Literature

  • Patents don't describe inventions as they appear in the market.  Patents may cover broader concepts and they don't specify the final packaging, detailing, manufacturing processes, trademarked names, and other aspects of products.
  • Patents don't include product names.  Searching patents by names of products, whether Formica or Blackberry mobile devices, rarely provides a direct path to the invention in question.  Final product names are often determined long after patents are filed (trademarks rather than patents protect product names).  In addition, the final product may be an amalgamation of several patents.   So searching patents for, say, Apple's popular iPad requires knowing that the relevant patent was titled “Proximity detector in hand-held device" and never once uses the term iPad.
  • Patents aren't easy to read.  Patents are legal documents and usually written by attorneys for analysis by patent examiners.  They lack the directness of specifications, technical standards, or other types of descriptive documents.  They often employ a specific legalistic vocabulary.
  • Patents aren't a true form of scientific literature.  While patent applications are subject to examination by patent examiners, they are not subject to peer review and are not required to demonstrate proof of success through experiments and processes usually associated with scientific research.

Patent Types

1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;

2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and

3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant

Patent applications
  • Patent applications are released to the public 18 months after the initial application. In the USPTO website patent applications are found in a separate database.
  • Term “prior art” – patent term meaning – Is there proof that the idea exists in the public domain somewhere?
    • If idea or invention has been disclosed anywhere (in the world) – not just in patents – it can invalidate your idea or invention. Prior art can be found in the literature of the field – dissertations, juried journal articles, trade journals, proceedings from meetings, government reports (anything in the public domain).
  • Not everything is patented – technology for the public good – HTML, the web, OR company or trade secrets, Silly Putty, Coca Cola

Application Types for Utility Patents: 
  • Provisional
    • Provisional applications are good only for 12 months. This means that you must file a corresponding non-provisional application during this time period to take full advantage of the extended 12 month time period or face the expiration of your provisional application.  This is good for if you want time to secure funding/talk to possible investors without worry of disclosure. 
  • Non-Provisional
    • non-provisional application is the more common of the two. This is considered the normal patent application.  

Trademark Definition

A trademark includes any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods.  In short, a trademark is a brand name.

A service mark is any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce, to identify and distinguish the services of one provider from the services provided by others, and to indicate the source of the services.
[Source: US Patent and Trademark Office]

For more information about trademarks, visit the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Subject Librarian

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Aleshia Huber
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