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Patent Searching: Patents 101

This guide supplements other existing guides by emphasizing patent contents and search strategies.

Anatomy of a Patent

Patents will generally contain the following items:

  • Cover Page summarizing the invention:
    • Identifying information such as:
      • Patent number
      • Title
      • Inventors
      • Assignee
      • Application, Issue, and other Priority dates
    • Abstract
    • Patent classification codes (e.g., CPC)
    • References cited (search engines also offer "cited by" lists)
    • A representative drawing


  • Drawings showing key aspects of the invention, which are numbered to facilitate discussion in the detailed description of the invention



  • Background discussing relevant prior art and the need for the invention
  • Brief description of the drawings identifying the content and/or context of each drawing
  • Detailed description of the invention
    • NOTE: To satisfy patent requirements, this must be detailed enough that a "person skilled in the art" can reproduce the invention. Items discussed in this description may or may not be claimed, but are nonetheless publicly disclosed.
  • Claims that form the basis for the legal rights of the inventor
    • NOTE: These are written in a very structured language that adheres to strict legal guidelines. There are two types of claims: independent and dependent.  A dependent claim will contain all aspects of a prior claim to which it depends, plus additional aspects.  In reading claims it is helpful to first identify the independent claims - these are the broadest claims made in the patent.

Common Patent Terminology

The following are commonly-used patent terms:

  • Cited Art
    • Prior patents, applications, or non-patent literature that is deemed relevant to a patent or application. The list of cited patents is provided by the applicant and the patent examiner, and forms the basis for acceptance or rejection of patent claims.
  • Claims
    • That subset of the overall technology described in a patent that is protected under patent law; or, in the case of a patent application, that for which the inventor is seeking patent law protection.
  • Disclosed (respecting a patent or application)
    • Technology that is described in a patent or application, regardless of whether it is claimed or not.
  • Issued Patent
    • A document that has been examined and determined to meet criteria established by the patent office. This document has been granted patent status with its attendant legal rights. Issued patents comprise patents that are active and also those that are no longer active because they have expired or have been abandoned.
  • Novelty
    • A measure determining whether something disclosed in a patent application has been previously conceived by another inventor. The US Patent and Trademark Office, as do many international patent offices, treat the filing date of a patent application as the date that establishes the invention.
  • Patent Application (non-provisional)
    • A set of documents that have been filed with the patent office for the purpose of examination and ultimate issuance.  After an initial period as defined by patent law, such documents are published for public viewing. Some published applications may have been rejected during the application process and some have been issued; others may still be working towards issuance.
  • Patent Types
    • Utility - the most common type of patent, with a term of 20 years from the filing date (in the US).  This patent deals with mechanisms, software, chemical compounds, and other useful items. See USPTO Utility Patents.
    • Design - a patent on aesthetic features of a manufactured item, with a term of 14 or 15 years from the date of grant, depending on the date of filing (in the US). See USPTO Design Patents.
    • Plant - a patent on a new variety of plant that can be asexually reproduced, with a term of 20 years from the filing date (in the US).  See 35 U.S.C. 161 and USPTO General Information.
  • Provisional Patent Application
    • This type of application is filed to establish a placeholder for a patent application, which establishes the date of a patentable invention.  An applicant filing a provisional application has one year to file a corresponding non-provisional application.  A provisional application is not examined nor published, unless it is associated with a non-provisional application.  At that point, it will not be examined per se but will be considered by the examiner to determine if the non-provisional patent application is within the scope of the provisional application and qualifies for the priority date of the provisional application. See USPTO Provisional Application.
  • Public Domain
    • Technology that is freely available for public use. After a patent's term expires (20 years from filing date in the US), it becomes part of the public domain. Likewise, something that is disclosed publicly (e.g., in a published patent application or a journal article) is part of the public domain, unless claimed in an issued patent or active patent application.
  • Utility
    • A measure determining whether something disclosed in a patent application is useful. This is a requirement for obtaining a patent, although the bar may be at times set fairly low, as evidenced by certain patents.