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Finding Patents


This webpage will give you a brief introduction to US patents. Sometimes students confuse patents with copyright or trademarks. This is an oversimplification, but think of it this way.

  • Patents pertain to inventions.
  • Copyright is about “copying” something tangible.
  • Trademarks are logos or something else visual that one identifies with a company.

We will discuss basic information about patents.

What is a Patent?

electric guitar

The constitution enabled congress to give this right to inventors to further science and discovery. Patents are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

A US patent protects

“the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling … or importing the invention …” it is “effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions.”


According to Patent Fundamentals for Scientists and Engineers (3rd ed.), there are three characteristics associated with a patent

  • Contractual

    It is a contract between the inventor and the government.

  • Property

    It is property that you could sell or license and collect royalties.

  • Monopoly

    You have a limited time monopoly in the country that you own the patent.

guitar from freeSVG

What are the Types of Patents>

Utility patent


“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”

Utility patents are the type that most engineers are interested in reading, seeking for their own inventions, or seeking in behalf of the company that they work for. When I hear utility, I think of the gas or electric company; however, the definition of utility is useful. It makes sense this is called a utility patent.

Patents don't last forever. In general, utility patents last 20 years from filing date. There are reasons that a patent can expire much earlier. For example, a patent can expire if the maintenance fees for the patent are not paid.

There is no such thing as one patent giving you protection in every country. You have to apply for individual countries or regions to have protection in those countries.

Design patent

“may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture”

Plant patent

“may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant”

from USPTO

gears from freeSVG

Why search for Patents?

magnifying glass and fingerprints

A condition of patentablity is that it must be “new, useful, and non-obvious.” from

Therefore, you might want to search patents to

  • Find a detailed description of inventions that aren’t documented elsewhere

    Since the invention must be new, it can’t be described in print prior to the patent. In the US, there is a year grace period, but most other countries don’t have this grace period. If you wanted to file in another country, you would need to apply for a patent prior to any written description of the invention.

    Therefore, this information might not be in journal articles, books, reports, etc. It might never be documented anywhere except in patents.

  • Help to generate ideas about inventions

    Maybe you could improve a process or invention. Maybe you have a better method than is patented.

  • Find out if an invention is patentable

    The invention being patented must be “sufficiently different from inventions that were in existence before it.” This is where the non-obvious criteria comes in. This is why you must search for prior inventions related to your invention. You will hear this called a prior art search.

How do I describe an Invention?

In order to search for a patent, you need to develop keywords. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Describing an invention can be very difficult.

Let's consider the definition of an utility patent. It can be a

  • Process
  • Machine
  • Article of manufacture
  • Composition of matter
  • New and useful improvement


Consider a process. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of the process?
    • What does the process do
    • What problem does it solve?
    • What process does it improve upon?
  • How is it used?
    • How do you use if under certain conditions?
  • What are the steps?
    • How do you do the steps in the process or is it a linear process?
    • Do you take different steps depending on the outcome of the previous step?
  • Are there special considerations?
    • Is this only for particular materials or other conditions?


Consider a machine. Ask yourself ...

  • What is the machine's intended function?
    • What does the machine do?
    • What is its purpose?
  • What is it made of?
    • What materials is the machine made of?
  • What is its structure?
    • What parts make up the machine?
    • How do they connect?
  • How does it perform its function?
    • How is the machine powered?
    • Are there other forces that drive the machine (e.g., gravity)?

from the video, How to conduct a preliminary US patent search: A step by step strategy from USPTO.

Why can it be difficult to find Keywords?

slinky toy

In looking at the questions in the previous slide, how likely would it be that you and I pick the same terms to describe something? It is probably not very likely.

Patent titles can be vague

An inventor wants their invention to be as completly protected as possible, the patent titles are vague quite often. How many of you had a Slinky growing up? I did!

What keywords would I use to find this patent? Slinky is a brand name, so we can't use that term.

  • Would I use steel?
  • Would I use spring?
  • Would I use toy?
  • How else could you describe it?

The title of this patent is Toy and Process of Use. When I was looking for it, I did not think that would be the title. Luckily, Google does a full-text search of the patents.

Even so, I did several searches and this particular patent didn't come up. The description of the invention is

 “…to provide a helical spring toy which will transfer its turns from one end to the other in an entertaining manner when it is bent into general semi-circular form and the ends are moved up and down.”

There are so many words and ways to describe this, which makes it difficult to find.

You would be surprised to learn when this idea was first patented. It was in 1947. Older patents reflect how people spoke at the time. The way we speak now is much different than the way they spoke in 1947.

"My invention relates to toys primarily intended for amusement of children, but also for family use as parlor games and the like, and for advertising purposes."

from US 2415012

traffic cone with notches protruding around the bottom of the cone.

Patents might use legal language

Sometimes patents are written by lawyers. The inventors (and assignee) of this traffic cone were granted a patent in 2019.

A traffic cone is not new, of course, but there are features of this specific traffic cone that are unique and improves its function. An excerpt from the description of the invention in the patent is as follows.

 “…A plurality of circumferentially spaced interlock protrusions disposed on the wall of the marker body, for engaging an interior circumference of the base when the marker assembly is in an assembled space, and for also preventing sticking of marker bodies together when they are stacked.”


I had to read this multiple times to understand what it meant.

This cone has two improvements. The excerpt above describes the multiple small protruding bumps located a few inches from the bottom of the cone.

The protrutions are how the base is attached, but its purpose is two fold. The unique part of this design is that these bumps will stop two cones from sticking together if another cone is stacked on it.

from US 10422090 B2

How do I get Ideas for Keywords?

The USPTO suggests you use technical dictionaries and encyclopedias. University Libraries has many dictionaries and encyclopedias that you can find from Mason Libraries Search:

  1. Go to advanced search
  2. Select the Mason Catalog radio button

I searched the subject field for encyclopedias or dictionaries. Also, I looked for technical, medical or engineering in the subject field. The search was



encyclopedias OR dictionaries




technic* OR medic* OR engineering

Go to the results list of dictionaries and encyclopedias in the Mason Catalog opens new window


Patents protect inventions by giving the inventors or assignees a limited time monopoly for their invention in the country that they have the patent. Until the patent expires, they own the invention, so they can sell the patent. They can license the invention to someone else and collect royalties. The patent excludes others from making, selling, importing, etc. the invention.

There are three types of US patents: utility, design, and plant. Engineers are usually most interested in applying for utility patents.

Patents might contain information that you can't find anywhere else. You can get ideas about projects that you might want to complete from reading them.

Google Patent can be used to find patents from over 100 countries. Most seek patents by keyword first. Finding keywords can be difficult because patents can

  • be vague,
  • contain legal jargon, and
  • have antiquated speech.

Patents can be difficult to understand for the same reasons that keywords are difficult to find. A keyword search will usually lead to some relevant classification codes. You might want to search by CPC code to get more precise results.

Go to the patent glossary to get definitions of these terms.