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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

Library resources to support course work and research

About Patents

Why search the patent literature?

  • Identify new research fronts and/or licensing opportunities
  • Avoid duplication of research efforts
  • Learn how something works (diagrams, detailed description)
  • Find information on a company’s activities, or identify experts in a field
  • Gain protection for an idea or invention
  • It is estimated that 85-90% 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.

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.
  • A patent held in the U.S. only means that your rights in the U.S. are protected. Inventors must file patents in several places to get comprehensive coverage. This means that there are many, many places to find patent literature.
  • More than 9 million US patents have been awarded since 1790.
  • There are 3 types of patents: Utility, Design, and Plant.

What is patentable? Inventions have to meet certain 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.)
  • Full disclosure is required

Patent applications

  • Patent applications are released to the public 18 months after the initial application. On 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 an 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