What is a Patent?

A patent is a contract between the government and an inventor or inventors. The inventors are required to disclose the technology they have invented. In exchange, the government grants the inventors the exclusive right to make, use, and sell their patented technology, during the term of the patent. After the patent expires, the inventors lose their rights to the invention. In the United States, patents are administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Reasons to do a patent search

If you are an inventor, you should be aware of relevant prior art in your technology. If you are an entrepreneur, you should monitor your competitors' new products, and where they are patented. If you are involved in applied research, you need to review new and pending patents in your discipline.  Patents are the first place to look. Over 80% of the information contained in recent patent literature is not published elsewhere.

If you have an invention, you should plan to do a patent search for three main reasons.

  • To help determine whether your invention is new. Even if you invented it on your own, you cannot assume your invention has never been patented even if you have not seen it on the market.
  • To document your invention's relationship to other inventions in the same field (the prior art). Almost all patents refer to earlier patents.
  • To familiarize yourself with patents. Reading a number of patents on similar inventions is a good way to learn how successful patents are written.

What can be patented?

An invention can be patented if it is:

Novel, or new. The invention cannot be previously known. It must differ physically in some way from all prior art, or there must be new use. Determining novelty is usually the most time-consuming part of a patent search, and

Unobvious. The invention must be unobvious to someone experienced in the field of the invention, and

Useful. The invention must have some use or purpose that is functional and not purely aesthetic. Another aspect of the usefulness requirement is that the invention must operate.

Patent searching is time consuming

➜ You cannot simply see if something has been patented, you must make sure that the item has not been patented. This means that you must examine each patent in your subject area to determine if there is prior claim to your idea(s).

➜ You must search as far back in time as your invention has been technologically possible.

Utility patents have a life span of 20 years. Anything previously patented cannot be re-patented, even though that patent may have expired. Once a patent expires, the invention becomes part of the public domain, meaning that anyone may be able to use or manufacture the invention.

How to search for patents

First, determine your invention's classification(s); then examine the patents in each classification and compare them to your invention. You may also want to search for non-US patents.

Most patent databases are web based. You must search as far back in time as it was technologically possible for your invention to exist. While web databases are useful for preliminary searches, complete searches may require a visit to a U.S. Patent Office Search Facility. 

After searching the patent literature, also look at the non-patent literature. Sometimes new ideas are published in professional journals or presented at conferences before a patent is granted, or even if a patent is not pursued. SciFinder Scholar indexes chemical patents from approximately 25 countries and patent organizations. It also issues a patent concordance, listing patent number by issuing country and the corresponding patent number in other countries.


Steps to Search for Patents in SciFinder

Set up an account in SciFinder if you don't already have one. Users must be faculty, staff or current students at Whitworth.


Log in to SciFinder Scholar from the Articles tab on the Chemistry Research Guide.

SciFinder login

Click on "Patent."


Search by Patent No., assignee name, inventor name, or year.