How do you find out if something is patented? The answer lies in searching the database of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This search may be done online via the USPTO website or in person at the various USPTO libraries spread across the country.

What Is the USPTO?

USPTO is the federal agency that reviews patent applications and determines whether or not to issue a patent. The agency keeps an extensive record of previously issued patents, and this record is publicly accessible to anyone who may be interested in the information.

Since the agency will not issue another patent to inventions similar to previously patented ones, it is important to thoroughly search for any invention similar to yours in the USPTO database before applying for a patent. This will save you a lot of time, effort, money, and future hassle from patent trolls.

What Can Be Patented?

In order to know whether your idea qualifies for a patent, it is important to understand what patenting is. A patent is an exclusive ownership right that governments grant to inventors to make or commercially exploit an invention for a set period of time. However, not everything can be patented. For instance, the exclusive ownership of a book or song is a copyright and not a patent. Similarly, you cannot patent your business name — that would be called a trademark.

What can be patented is a useful and original invention. This may include a new kind of device, machinery, manufacturing process, or even an improvement to already patented invention. Generally, there are three types of patents approved by the USPTO.

  1. Design Patents: These are usually enhancements to an already existing object, without any change in its functionality.
  2. Plant Patents: These include new kinds of plants resulting from cuttings, grafts, or other asexual means.
  3. Utility Patents: These cover objects that function in a new way or are capable of producing new results that have not been achieved previously by similar objects.

For your invention to receive a patent, it must possess three basic qualities:

  • It must be completely new and must not have been made publicly available prior to the filing of your patent application.
  • The invention must work exactly as promised.
  • The invention must reveal inventive ingenuity and not simply state what is obvious to someone else who is skilled in the same discipline.

Preforming a patent search isn't as simple as entering keywords into a regular search engine. The USPTO database is huge and a regular unfiltered search will produce overwhelming results. Here are some specific steps you should take when performing your online patent search:

  1. Open the USPTO website. Once open, click on the search icon to begin.
  2. Select the Advanced Search Option. Searching for keywords using the basic quick search can produce overwhelming results. Instead, use the advanced search function, which gives room for using different parameters to filter search results.
  3. Choose the search parameters. There are 31 search parameters to choose from in the USPTO website. These include patent titles, patent abstracts, application dates etc. Further information on how to use each parameter is available by clicking on its corresponding link.
  4. Enter your keywords into the search box. Keywords and other search parameters need to be entered in a very specific order into the query box in order to produce relevant results. Examples of the required search format for each specific code are available under the field code instructions and at the top of the website.
  5. Select a time frame. Typical search results on the USPTO database contain complete information only for patents issued from 1976 to the present. However, to access patents issued before 1976 (all the way back to 1790), you'll need to enter the patent number, issue date, and current U.S. classification.
  6. Open relevant search results to discover the existence of a patent. The database search results come in the form of a list, so you'll need to click on each individual result to access the patent information. Each search result provides information about the background and functionality of the invention. It also comes with a descriptive drawing of the invention, which lets you know whether it's the same invention you had in mind.

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