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Patents: Patent Basics

Patent Basics

A patent is an intellectual property right granted by the government to an inventor or owner “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the said country or importing the invention into the said country” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention.

  • U.S. Constitution - Article I Section 8 | Clause 8 – Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution. [The Congress shall have 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.”

Intellectual Property Glossary

What is a patent?

  • A monopoly for about 20 years in the country in which the patent is issued.
  • It gives the patent owner exclusive rights to exclude others from making or selling the invention.
  • U.S. Patents are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. USPTO handles over 300,000 patent applications per year. Most countries have their own intellectual property office.
  • There are 3 types of patents in the US: Utility (91%), Design (9%), Plant (0.5%).

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

Patentability/ Avoid Infringement:

The most common reason to conduct a comprehensive prior art patent search is to make sure no other similar invention already exists.  Patents are granted to inventions that are novel (new) and non-obvious.  If an inventor believes their invention is new, they must first conduct a prior art search before they apply for a patent. 

"Prior art" pertains to any previous mention of the technology or device in the public domain.  In other words, prior art searching must also include searching the internet, research databases, and other spheres besides granted patents.

Unique Technical Information:
  • ~70-90% of technical information can only be found in patents
  • see how others have tackled a particular design problem
  • avoid duplication of research efforts
  • explore state-of-the-art technology

Market Research:
  • track the intellectual property of competitors
  • see what companies (or competitors) have in their pipeline (what's the next big trend)
  • identify possible licensing opportunities
  • see who the leading inventors are with a field (e.g. headhunting)

Genealogy and Historical 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.  


What is patentable?

Inventions have to meet three main criteria:

  • Novel (unique and new, never made public in any way, anywhere, before the date of the filed application)
  • Useful
  • Non-obvious to someone skilled in the art (Note: to be patented, full disclosure of the technology must be provided.)


  • Process
  • Machine
  • Article of manufacture
  • Composition of matter
  • Improvement of any of the above

What cannot be patented? 
  • Laws of nature
  • Physical phenomena
  • Abstract ideas
  • Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (these would fall under Copyright)
  • Inventions which are:
    • Not useful
    • Offensive to public morality