Vol. 78, No. 9, September
Patent Sites for the Occasional User
There are many reasons why a lawyer would occasionally want to
conduct patent research: to follow trends and patterns in key
technology, to help a client test a business environment, to learn about
corporate competition, or even to evaluate a job applicant. These tips
help the occasional user locate patents online.
by Genevieve Zook
The availability of patent databases on the Internet has made the
task of locating patents easier for the occasional user. Patent
databases on the Web have grown increasingly sophisticated while
providing improved access to information. They also have improved their
indexing and expanded their coverage. For a simple search for patent
information the free services provided on the Web work well. Not only
are these services good enough - sometimes the information they provide
is more complete1 than the information
provided by fee-based resources.
Genevieve Zook is the reference
librarian at the U.W. Law Library and a member of the Law Librarians
Association of Wisconsin, sponsor of this series of articles. She may be
contacted at email@example.com.
Fee-based patent services typically provide advanced indexing,
greater flexibility in keyword searching, and convenient document
delivery (for example, delivering a file wrapper to your email or
allowing you to obtain patents from a Web browser). Another benefit of
fee-based services is the availability of researchers who can help you
locate information in their databases, saving you time and occasionally
even money. Most fee-based sites provide training and staff experts to
assist their clients in learning how to navigate the databases. An
advantage of asking these researchers for help in navigating an
unfamiliar database is that they provide point-of-need training. Another
advantage is that most help desks have multiple staff. If you don't get
the information you need with your first call, you can call again.
You'll likely get a different researcher with a different research
Basic Facts about a United States Patent
A United States patent is a contract between the government and the
inventor to protect the individual's control of an invention for a
certain length of time for the economic benefit of the inventor and to
promote innovation in society. For a patent to be granted, an invention
must meet three criteria: it must have novelty, it must have
utility,2 and it must be nonobvious to an
individual of ordinary skill in the field.3
Three types of patents are available: utility, design, and plant
patents. Utility patents, which make up the largest group of patent
types, are subdivided into mechanical, electrical, and chemical
categories.4 Utility patents are granted for
20 years.5 Design patents, which cover the
ornamental aspects of a design, have 14-year terms.6 Plant patents, which cover new strains of
asexually producing plants, also have 20-year terms.
Basic parts of the patent include the identification of the
inventors, the filing date, the title, an abstract, background, a
summary, a brief description of the drawing, a detailed description, and
the claim or claims.7
Why Research Patents?
Thanks in large part to the availability of online resources, the use
of patent research has expanded over the years. Traditionally, patent
research was the field of inventors, patent attorneys, and patent search
experts, but patent research increased as other professions became aware
of the value of a patent search.8 The
technical information found in a patent has become a vital part of the
business environment. Patent searches are used in a variety of ways in
business, from listing patents as part of the assets or inventory of a
company to competitive intelligence (CI). Competitive intelligence is
gathering information about a business environment, usually to develop a
business strategy in a particular market. A component of competitive
intelligence is viewing and comparing the types and number of patents
kept by companies within an industry. Patents also are used to study the
trends and patterns in a key technology.9
Patent information may be used to help evaluate a potential job
applicant; for example, a patent search can reveal an applicant's
contributions to a technology. Lastly, patent research is used in fields
of academic study, even in such nontechnical fields as social science;
for example, studying granted patents in a geographical area to evaluate
information about the political or social conditions of the time.
If you have the patent number, viewing a patent or downloading a copy
of a patent from a Web site is easy. Some patent sites only offer the
ability to locate patents by number, while other sites provide keyword
and field searching features. A field search is one that targets a
patent's searchable fields (for example, an inventor's name) to locate
hits in those specified fields. To view a list of these fields, see the
United States Patent and Trademark Office Web site at www.uspto.gov.
A word of caution. If you have experience searching
in other types of Internet databases, you should be able to search for
patents online. But, although these simple searches get results, they
probably will not be the complete results that a professional researcher
can obtain.10 There is concern among the
patent research community that novice patent researchers may not
recognize they are at a preliminary stage of a project when searching
for patents, may not understand the flaws inherent in keyword searching,
or may draw the wrong conclusions from their research. Any novice
researcher who assumes Google is the best tool for Internet research
runs the risk of missing information or obtaining incorrect or
out-of-date information. Despite the advances in patent research
databases, exhaustive patent research still requires the services of a
professional. For example, to perform a novelty search or to analyze
patent information takes the skill of an experienced patent researcher
or patent attorney.
Tips for More Advanced Searching
Patent Depository Libraries in Wisconsin
If you are attempting to do more than a simple patent search, such as
an initial novelty search to see if an invention is worth the expense of
obtaining a patent, I recommend a visit to a local U.S. Patent
Depository Library (PTLD). The patent librarians there can provide
advice on how to best use the services available to the public, and each
library's Web site provides useful articles and links to patent
information accessible on the Web. These libraries also collect books
that are written with the novice inventor in mind. But remember that
this initial trip is the beginning of your research.
- Kurt F. Wendt Library, the Engineering Library, is on the
U.W.-Madison campus, at 215 N. Randall Ave. The Kurt F. Wendt Library is
a Patent Depository Library for the United States Patent and Trademark
Office. Information on how to research patents is provided at the
page. Patents and the patent reference area are located on the third
floor of the library. The library also offers a fee-based search service
for patent research.
- Wisconsin TechSearch. The Kurt F. Wendt Library provides a fee-based
search service that can be contacted at (608) 262-5917. To learn more
about this and other services at the Kurt F. Wendt Library, visit www.wisc.edu/wendt/patent/pserv.html.
- The Milwaukee Public Library, 814 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, has
a Web site at www.mpl.org that
offers a variety of links and articles on how to research patents. For
more information, select Get Reference Help from the home page and then
It is important to note that no single database includes every
patent. Also, many older patents cannot be searched by keyword, so
always check coverage dates before performing a search. If you are using
a database that includes patents from across several databases (many
services include both U.S. patents and foreign patents) always check to
see what each database includes.
When searching for foreign patents, be aware that there is plenty to
miss if you can only search for patents in English. Don't assume there
will always be a full-text English translation of a patent. An abstract
in English of a foreign patent may be all that is provided in the
database you have selected. Many foreign patents are not written in
English and therefore will not be keyword searchable in English.
Be cautious when structuring a keyword search. Although keyword
full-text searching has provided a useful way of searching for
information online, this type of search must be considered an
entry-level search in the context of patent research because a
disadvantage to keyword searching in full-text patent databases is that
a researcher must try to think of every word that may be used to
describe an invention. Terms that appear obvious to you may not be
obvious to others, and the common name of an invention may never be
provided within the text of the patent.11
The patent community does provide manuals for locating additional
terms, and many sites now provide links to these manuals. However, using
the terms in these manuals successfully takes experience. Seek an expert
in the field if you want to take full advantage of the vocabulary
features in a patent classification manual.
Some databases provide controlled vocabulary features for their
users. For example, STN Express and Dialog contain thesauri.12 A controlled vocabulary is an index of
authorized terms used in databases in searchable fields. The patent
database vendors usually have staff experts who can explain how to use
Caution. Even if you have chosen the correct terms
to use to search for a specific type of patent, you can miss information
if you are unfamiliar with how to construct the search within a
particular database. Read the tutorials and check for help functions at
the site before getting started. Although this may seem obvious, use the
service number the patent vendor provides for help: you will learn more
about the database in general, and the researcher on the phone will give
helpful "insider" tips on how to find information faster and with a more
accurate "hit" strategy.
To learn more about how to perform a basic patent search, seek out
one of the patent tutorials available on the Web. A few resources and
links are provided at the end of this article.
Free Searching on the Web
United States. You can begin your patent research at
the United States Patent and Trademark Office, at
www.uspto.gov. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
provides three databases; a full-text database, a full-page image
database, and a published application database. Patents can be searched
in a variety of ways on the USPTO databases. Keyword searching and field
searching are available in the full-text database. Keyword searching
allows you to construct a search using a word or combination of words.
Field searching, searching the parts of a patent, allows you to search
in the individual fields found in the document, such as the patent
number or the inventor's name. To view the field codes and see examples
of how to construct a field search, link to the USPTO help
guide "Help on the Manual Search Page." The help function at this
site has several articles and guides and a frequently asked questions
section. Coverage in the full-text database dates from 1976 to the
The full-page image database contains the front page, drawings,
specifications, claims, certificates of corrections, and reexaminations
for each patent included. These patents are not searchable in full text.
Patents download in a tagged image file format (TIFF). A TIFF plug-in
also is available for download at the Web site. Patents in TIFF are
available for downloading one page at a time. Coverage in the full-image
database dates from 1790 to the present. A hyperlink to images is
available at the top button of the menu in the Full Text document
The USPTO Web site also allows users to view patent applications and
to check if patent maintenance fees have been filed. A patent
maintenance fee must be paid to maintain the patent in force.
British Library. The British Library is the national
library of the United Kingdom and offers a wealth of links to patent
information, with an emphasis on European links. This site links to free
and fee-based services, at www.bl.uk/collections/patents.html.
European Patent Office. Espacenet,
which is provided by the European Patent Office (EPO), offers searching
for patents at the EPO and the World Intellectual Property Office, as
well as searching for Japanese patents and patents in selected other
countries. Espacenet provides PDF copies of patents, keyword searching,
and a family lookup feature using the INternational PAtent DOcumentation
Center (INPADOC), so you can check where else in the world a patent is
filed. The free INPADOC database through the EPO Espacenet may not yield
results as complete as those from a commercial service.13
To locate members of the European Patent Office, see the lists
provided at www.european
Japanese Patent Office. Japanese
patent abstracts offered in English.
The World Intellectual
Property Office (WIPO)
is provided by the United Nations. WIPO is responsible for protecting
intellectual property throughout the world. It maintains information on
patents, tracks emerging patent issues, and provides additional
A Word About Lexis and Westlaw
Both Westlaw and Lexis provide patent information. Thomson
Corporation, which owns West Publishing, purchased Dialog several years
ago and expanded its patent and technical resources through that
purchase. Lexis also has several patent and patent literature databases.
Both Lexis and Westlaw offer patent retrieval and document delivery
services, but those services are outside a standard contract.
If you have a contract with either Lexis or Westlaw, then searching
these databases may be a good way to begin your research. You can use
their patent databases to search both patents and patent literature. For
example, with just a name, you can search the patent databases to locate
references to an expert in a specific area of technology.
Lexis provides a
Patent Law Library. To search U.S. patents in full text, use LEXPAT, the
Patent and Trademark Office Library, which provides access to the full
text of U.S. patents from 1971 to the present. Access to the full text
of foreign patents also is available. However, coverage of foreign
patents varies, so check within the information section for dates of
coverage by selecting the small (i) next to the name of the
a variety of databases for researching U.S. and foreign patents. To
search patents in Westlaw, select the directory at the top of the menu,
and choose topical practice areas. Patent databases are located in the
intellectual property folder. To search U.S. patents, use United States
Patent Materials (US-PAT-ALL), which includes granted patents, patent
applications, and patent assignments. Coverage for granted patents
begins in 1976, coverage for patent applications begins in March 2001,
and coverage for patent assignments begins in 1980. If you select a
Dialog database in Westlaw, please note that the cost for using the
Dialog database is usually outside the standard Westlaw contract.
Other Free and Fee-based Patent Web Sites14
- Free Patents Online
provides full-text coverage dating from 1974 to the present. The
full-text database permits keyword searching. The database uses the same
search fields as the USPTO. The codes for the fields are provided at the
bottom of the advanced search site; read the guide from the USPTO Web
site on field searching for examples. TIFF or PDF copies of patents can
be downloaded from this service for free. TIFF copies are downloaded one
page at a time.
- Delphion Intellectual Property
Network 15 began as a free patent
search service provided by IBM but has since become a fee-based patent
service and is now part of Thomson Corporation. With free registration,
Delphion.com offers simple searches for U.S. patents, patent number
searching for worldwide collections, and free work files. For a fee,
these files can be sent to you in either PDF or TIFF.
Café offers both fee-based and free information on
patents. While at this site, try the Open Source Software (OSS) Patent
Search Engine, through PatentCafe.
According to Webopedia.com,
"open source, refers to a program source code that is free to
the general public for use and/or modification from its original
is a very large database. Micropatent also offers file wrappers (file
histories of patents) that can be searched by patent number for
- Mayall's IP
Links has a wealth of links to intellectual property
material. This patent link also reviews free patent download sites.
Orbit Intellectual Property Group,16 provides full-text coverage of U.S. and European
patents dating back to the 1970s.
Obtaining Copies of Patents
The following services provide copies of patents.
Fetcher by Patent Logistics LLC offers free copies of both
European and U.S. patents in PDF if you have the patent number. The
service limits how many patents you can download in a 24-hour period.
See the note of explanation at its Web site.
- Get the Patent is a
fee-based patent service that offers a free 14-day trial with
- PAT2PDF offers some U.S. and
European patents for free and others as part of a Web-based subscription
service. Patent documents with a patent number below 1,000,000 are
accessible for free. For free PDF copies of patents, visit
- The Patent
Hunter offers a free trial to download software and a variety
of packages for a subscription service.
- Google also
helps you to locate patents. Just type the patent number in the menu box
and Google will link you to the United States Patent Office site.
- PatentMatic covers U.S.,
World (WO), European (EU), and Japanese patents. This service links to
download PDF copies.
Technology databases, such as those listed below, also can be good
sources of patent information.
- Software Patent
Institute. This specialized patent service offers free
searching. To obtain copies of the patents, you must register and pay a
- STN on the Web
is a large database with specialized databases for technical and
information services for the science community. STN is considered by
patent searchers to be an excellent database to search for chemical and
biotechnology patent and nonpatent information.
- Dialog, at www.Dialog.com,
provides a wealth of patent and technical information and is easier to
use than other technical databases for the novice patent searcher. Learn
more about the products available at Dialog.
Programs and Plug-Ins
Many free and fee-based services require you to download a plug-in or
program to download material from their site. See The Invent Blog's site
for a list of programs and plug-ins, at http://nip.blogs.com.
List of Patent Web Site Links
View a list of
patent sites and their coverage, both free and fee-based.17 This service provides links to both U.S.
and international patents.
Many science and engineering libraries offer online tutorials and
patent resource links. Examples include the following:
The Patent Bloggers
If you are interested in what is being discussed by intellectual
property (IP) attorneys, you can seek out patent bloggers. Many lawyers
use Weblogs to provide information on their fields of interest. These
bloggers often link to commercial and government IP sites as well as to
each other, so once you begin to visit them you will be able to judge
for yourself which sites are popular and useful. Some interesting sites
The availability of patent databases on the Internet has brought
patent searching to the occasional searcher who wants a copy of a
patent, needs the name of the author of an invention, or wants to know
more about a business by searching its patents. Although no patent
database search by a novice can equal the skill brought to a search by a
patent expert, your occasional patent search efforts will provide you
with useful information in a reasonable time for a modest cost.
1Richard Poynder, Vicious
Circle, Information Today, May 2004, at 24.
235 U.S.C. § 102.
335 U.S.C. § 103.
435 U.S.C. § 101.
535 U.S.C. § 154.
635 U.S.C. § 173.
7Adele Hoskin, Patents for the
Sporadic Searcher, 19 Ind. Libr. 1, at 31-37 (2000).
8John T. Butler, Electronic
Resources for Patent Searching, 84 Law Libr. J. 121 (Winter
9Donna Hopkins, Using Patents
to Plot Business Trends, DttP at 10-13 (Fall/Winter 2002).
10Stephen Adams, Patent
Information Has Arrived: The Message from the EPIDOS Annual Conference
2002, Online, March/April 2003, at 18-20.
11Jackie C. Shane, Patent and
Trademark Searching on the Web: Some Cautionary Advice, 18 Sci.
& Tech. Libr. 4, at 83-91 (2000).
12Email from Esther E. Koblenz,
Head DCO Librarian, Kenyon & Kenyon, to Genevieve Zook, Reference
Librarian, U.W. Law Library (July 28, 2005, 03:48 CST) (on file with
Research Guide: Patents - U.S. (2005). Zimmerman's Research Guides
are available online through LexisNexis InfoPro
for Legal Information Professionals .
14Robert J. Ambrogi, The Best
(and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web 101-20 (ALM Pub., 2d ed. 2004).
Ambrogi also has written several articles on this topic.
15Richard Poynder, A Look at
Delphion After 5 Years, Info. Today (Jan. 2002).
16Nancy Lambert, Qpat
Revisited: A Newly Revamped Internet Patent Resource, Searcher,
Feb. 2002, at 70-72.
17Robert J. Ambrogi, Sites
for IP Practitioners Abound on the Web: Government and Private Sites
Provide Global Data on Patents and Trademarks, Nat'l L.J., March
22, 2004, at S3.