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Resources for starting your research in engineering


What are patents?

  • A patent is a legal, government issued document that gives the patent owner exclusive rights to make, use, and sell an invention, and excludes others from making and selling that invention in the same period.
    • Design patents last for 15 years
    • Utility patents (most common) last for 20 years
    • Plant patents last for 20 years
  • Patents in the United States are granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). They handle over 300,000 patent applications per year, and more than 8 million patents have been awarded in the US since 1790.
  • Patents issued by the USPTO only apply within the United States and most countries have their own intellectual property office.
  • If a patent is held on an invention through the USPTO, it will only protect the rights to production and sale within the US, requiring inventors to file patents in multiple countries to gain complete coverage.
  • Due to the fact that patents are unique to a country (or region in the case of Europe), there are multiple databases to look for patents.

Why search for patents?

  • Identify new research areas
  • Avoid duplication of research effort
  • Discover how something works through examination of the diagrams and detailed descriptions
  • Find information on a company's inventions and discoveries, and identify experts within a field
  • Prepare to apply for a patent for your own invention
  • Much of the technical information disclosed within patents is not available anywhere else!

Patent Criteria

In order to be patentable, an invention must meet three criteria:

  • Novel - Known or in use in a publication or anywhere in the world prior to the invention. Inventors get a one year grace period to patent their invention.
  • Useful - It must have an application or utility, or it must be a measurable improvement over existing products or techniques
  • Non-obvious - It can't be an obvious or common sense invention for others in the same field

Patent Language

Patents are legal documents, so as you might expect, they describe inventions in legal terms. But since they are about inventions they incorporate engineering terms as well.This creates a special language hybrid that can make searching less straightforward than one might hope.  Depending on the era the invention was patented, you also need to consider how language changes over time–spelling, meaning, usage, etc. can be very different to how you might describe something now.

For exThe front page for the US Patent for the "skipping toy and method of playing the same."ample, you might recognize this patent drawing as the "Skip-It" toy from your childhood. But you know it by it's brand name rather than the title of its patent "Skipping toy and method of playing same."

So how do we go about finding patents when they are named in such an interesting way?

Patent Searching

Creating a patent search

Perhaps the hardest part of patent searching is the fact that it is NOT keyword searching. It instead focuses on:

  • the function of the item
  • the materials used to make the product
  • how the item is intended to be used

Answer these questions:

  1. Essential function
    1. What does it do?
    2. Who will this be used by?
  2. Physical structure
    1. What is it made of?
    2. What are the additional components?
  3. Intended use
    1. What is it used for?
    2. What is the expected result of its use? 

Search Tools

Useful Articles and Books