Database Secrets of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office

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Sophisticated users of information (whether in hard copy or electronic format) generally recognize the value in searching patents when seeking solutions to scientific and technical problems. According to law and custom, patents go to the original. This writer holds the personal axiom that NOBODY is all THAT original -- chances are, whatever the question or problem, someone somewhere has already articulated and addressed it, at least to some extent, in the course of what we call civilized history. Indeed, this is the principal reason that I remain in the field of information services; I begin every inquiry with the presumption that there is information, somewhere, to be gleaned.

Before one can understand the importance of the information-gathering process within the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), one must understand to some extent the nature of patents. I will be the first to admit that I am in no way an authority on this subject. Not only do I have little understanding of patent law, I don't even consider myself a truly competent searcher of patent databases.

[For an excellent (if slightly dated) discussion of patents and how to search patent databases, see Edlyn S. Simmons' "Patents" chapter in the Manual of Online Search Strategies, edited by C. J. Armstrong and J. A. Large (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987, pp. 84-156). Regular readers of Searcher have also seen excellent contributions from such luminaries as Nancy Lambert. Those of you who just can't stay off the Internet should check out the official site of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (http:// When you've finished there, get the quick inside take from our friends, the experts in the Patent Information Users Group (http://www. in the U.S. or in Great Britain).

All Right, Mr. Know-It-All, So What's a Patent?

Basically, a patent is an official recognition by the government (any government, but generally national or federal authority rather than a provincial, state, or local entity) that an individual or a group of individuals has created a new product or process, theoretically after some appreciable research and effort; that this new product or process substantially advances the state of science or technology; and that such individuals should have the exclusive right to use or sell this product or process for a certain period of time. The word "patent" itself has an older meaning. It referred originally to any sort of charter that gave someone the express approval of the authorities to engage in some act, or control some resource, to some degree of exclusivity.

Thus throughout literature you may see references to "land patents" and similar expressions.

But there is a trade-off inventors must make in return for gaining patents. They must state specifically what about the invention makes it unique, nonobvious, and so on. Moreover, they have to explain how it works in sufficient detail so that "one skilled in the art" (in general, a patent examiner) can determine that (a) it works, and (b) it's new. In the early days of U.S. Patent history (there's a nice overview in Robert O. Richardson's The Weird & Wondrous World of Patents, New York: Sterling Publishing, 1990), an inventor would assemble his invention, document it in an application for a patent, and send it (or bring it) for examination by the Patent Commissioners (one of whom was Thomas Jefferson). In the 19th century they generally abolished the requirement to provide a working model, partly because of physical limitations of storage space and partly due to several fires. However, an individual patent examiner today can still require the construction of a working model if that is the only way to demonstrate that the invention truly works. (I have heard rumors that the Patent Examining Corps have an unofficial rule that any device claiming to be a perpetual-motion machine must be constructed for examination, since such a device would by definition violate the laws of physics as we currently understand them. …