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Patent Searching for Students

A guide to patent searching for engineering or business students


Do you have an idea for an invention? There are several possible reasons you may want to do a patent search:

  • Patentability - has my invention or similar inventions been patented? (checking "prior art" for "novelty")
  • Freedom to operate - if already existing, has the patent on this invention expired, meaning others are free to manufacture it? 
  • Mining - are there companies who might be willing to manufacture or market my invention?
  • State of the art - what are the most recent patent applications granted in the area of my invention? (to determine existing solutions and potential competitors)

Whatever your reasons, this guide will help you get started.

Go to the Patent classification page to learn more about how patent classification systems work.

Go to the Worldwide patents page to learn how to find patents outside the U.S.

U.S. patents

A United States (U.S.) patent has three parts.

  1. Cover Page – contains bibliographic and identifying information (patent number, dates, inventors, classifications, abstract)
  2. Specification (disclosure) - contains a description of the invention (title, summary, cross-references, background, description of drawings, description of invention itself)
  3. Claims - contains one or more claims which define the invention and all its components

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

There are three types of United States patents: utility, design, and plant. The vast majority of patents are utility patents, which when granted are good for 20 years.

U.S. “patent documents” include both patents (PatFT database) and patent applications (AppFT database). The International Patent Cooperation Treaty requires that both be searched for prior art. 

Patents issued prior to the Internet (and the computer) must be searched in the official patent office sites using the CPC subject classification system; since they are not born-digital they have not been keyword-indexed.

The USPTO recommends starting your search on their site search box, by combining a few words describing your invention with the phrase "CPC scheme," which should bring up the relevant areas of the classification system (see Patent classification page for further information on the CPC system).  

Free patent search engines

These are the most well-known free sites.

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