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Resources for starting your research for patent information
The librarians at Feldberg are not trained lawyers. Please consult a lawyer or the Dartmouth Technology Transfer Office if you have questions about the legal aspect of patents and patent law in relation to Dartmouth technologies. If you have questions unrelated to technologies invented at Dartmouth, please explore your options here.

What are patents?

  • A patent is a legal, government issued document that gives the patent owner exclusive intellectual property rights to make, use, and sell an invention, and excludes others from making and selling that invention in the same period.
  • 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.

Did you know?

Patents are part of the US constitution! The right to protect intellectual property of inventors is included in the original document as a way to encourage innovation.

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.”

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 Types

  1. Utility patents are the most common type of patent. They have 6-8 digits and last for 20 years and protect the functionality of an invention. 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. Design patents protect the appearance of a product. They last for 15 years and their number starts with a D.
  3. Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant. Plant patents last for 20 years and their ID number starts with a PP.

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.

What cannot be patented?

  • Laws of nature
  • Physical phenomena
  • Ideas that cannot be detailed
  • Works subject to copyright (literary, dramatic, musical, artistic works)
  • Inventions that are not useful or offensive to public morality

Patent Language & Classification

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."

Deciphering a Patent

On this patent, there is a lot of helpful information, such as the [75] Inventors, [73] Assignee, [56] References Cited, [51] International Classification number for the patent, [52] additional US patent classification numbers. Additionally, detailed technical drawings accompany all patents.