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Library Research Guides

Patents and Trademarks

This subject guide provides a starting point for research in patents and trademarks at the Patent and Trademark Resource Center at the AAEL at University of Michigan.

Introduction to Understanding Patents

For complete information about patents see the US Patent and Trademark Office's Web pages and see a patent attorney or agent to ensure a thorough understanding.


A Few Patent Tips

Brief Definition: A (U.S.) patent is a grant of a property right by the (U.S.) Government to you, the inventor, "to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention." Patents differ significantly from copyrights and trademarks.

All patents must be "maintained" by paying a fee to the US Patent & Trademark Office at certain intervals. If you fail to pay the maintenance fee, your patent expires and you lose exclusive rights to your invention. Only a special act of Congress (pretty rare!) can extend the term of a patent, though certain pharmaceutical patents (a special type of chemical patent, not to be confused with patent medicines) don't require such extreme measures.

Three Categories

In the U.S., according to the current patent law, the US Patent & Trademark Office grants utility patents and plant patents that last for 20 years; and design patents that last for 14 years.

  • Utility patents apply to new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, compositions of matter, or any new and useful improvement of one of these. Generally speaking, if your invention does something, you should apply for a utility patent. Traditionally, utility patents have been divided into three basic types: mechanical, electrical, and chemical. (Pharmaceutical patents are a special case of chemical patents.)
  • Design patents apply to new, original, and ornamental design for an article or manufacure. To highlight the difference between design and utility patents, consider the original Macintosh computer. The plastic shell that covers all working parts is covered by a design patent, while many of the working parts it hides are covered by utility patents.
  • "Plant patents are granted to any person who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced any distinct and new variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than tuber-propogated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state."

Three Criteria

To receive a patent, your invention must meet at least the following three criteria:

Usefulness

Anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, compositions of matter, or any new and useful improvement of one of these can receive a utility patent.

If you invent a new, original, and ornamental design for an article or manufacture you may receive a design patent.

Plant patents work a bit differently. Since the language for plant patents is both very precise and very technical, we quote from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) itself:

"Plant patents are granted to any person who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced any distinct and new variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than tuber-propogated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state."

Novelty

Your patent must, of course, be novel. That is, if the invention has been known of or described in a printed publication somewhere (the U.S., Iceland, Madagascar. . .) before you invented it, or if it has been patented or described more than one year prior to your patent application, you can't get a patent. So if you invent something, begin to market it, and apply for a patent more than a year after you've made your invention public, you've prevented yourself from getting a patent.

(Non)-obviousness

A further stipulation of novelty refers to obviousness. Even if what you want to patent is not exactly described in published information, and even if you have created something with one or more differences from the most nearly similar thing known, the US Patent & Trademark Office might still refuse your claims if it thinks those differences obvious. For instance, changes in materials ("But nobody has ever made an internal combustion engine out of pork sausage before?!") or changes in size ("But this toothpick is REALLY BIG?!") don't usually count for much.


Getting your Patent

Be sure to invent something before you apply for a patent. Though this sounds like a silly thing to say, remember that to obtain a patent you need more than an idea: you need a useful, novel, and non-obvious invention that works.

Once you have invented something useful and non-obvious (and even before that, probably) you should search existing patents as thoroughly as you can to see whether your invention is indeed novel. You can search for patents yourself at a Depository Library, or have someone else (like a patent attorney ) do it for you.

There are many books in our Patent and Trademark Collection that can help you in the process of applying for a patent.

For more information on how to file for a Patent see the USPTO Patent Website.


International Patent Protection

Patent protection granted to an inventor by a government is only valid in the country where the inventor requested it. The rights do not extend beyond that country. For example, U.S. patents are valid only in the 50 states and its territories and do not provide legal protection in any other countries. When you wish to obtain patent protection for the same invention in other countries, you must file an application in each country separately. Attempting to pursue patent protection individually in several countries, however, can be complex and expensive, since each country has its own unique patent laws and practices. Important features in patent laws and practices that are significantly different among various nations are being negotiated under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The WIPO is one of the 16 specialized agencies of the United Nations and has its intergovernmental organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Its main mission is to promote the protection of intellectual property throughout the world through cooperation among nations. (Intellectual property includes inventions, trademarks, industrial designs, and copyrights.) As of February 20, 1997, the WIPO membership includes 161 countries.

WIPO
34, chemin des Colonbettes
CH-1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland
phone: 22 7309111
fax: 22 7335428

You may also search for European, PCT, and Japanese patents from the European Patent Office webpage. (Note: Be sure you have JavaScript enabled when you do a search.)