Patents: A Valuable Resource in the Information Age

By Wu, Connie; Calhoun, Ellen | Special Libraries, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Patents: A Valuable Resource in the Information Age


Wu, Connie, Calhoun, Ellen, Special Libraries


In the rapidly changing and growing world of information, patents have become more important than ever before. On March 19, 1991, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) issued its five millionth patent. In the first two hundred years of the United States' history, the PTO issued 4 million patents. In only 14 more short years, from 1976 to 1991, it issued one million more!

Patents have proven to be a most valuable resource for information on invention, technology, business and legal actions, and as such have played a significant role in our contemporary environment.

Introduction to Patents

A patent is a government certificate which secures to the owner the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the claimed invention for a set period of time (17 years for utility patents and 14 years for design patents).[1] A patent can be awarded to an inventor if the invention meets the requirements of patentability: novelty, usefulness, and non-obviousness.[2] The objective of the patent system is to advance technological programs by inducing inventors to disclose their inventions to the public, and to stimulate invention by rewarding the inventor for his or her invention through the granting of property rights. Article I Section 8 of the United States Constitution states that "Congress shall have the power ... to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Patents are intellectual property. The patent system provides an innovative security for this property.

In the United States, three types of patents are issued: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Utility patents are granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. Design patents are granted for any new, original, and ornamental designs for articles of manufacture. Plant patents are granted to anyone who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced any distinct and new variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly-found seedlings, other than a tuber-propagated or a plant found in an uncultivated state. The first U.S. patent was granted in 1790 to Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford, VT, for an improvement in "the making of Potash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process."[3] The first patent administrator and examiner in the united States was President Thomas Jefferson. Today, the Patent and Trademark Office employs over 1,600 examiners.

Most commonly, patents are associated with developments in applied technology, such as mechanical apparatus, electronic devices, chemical processes, pharmaceutical products, botanical plants, and products used in everyday life. The scientific researcher of today, however, is more involved in improving the Process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter."[4] In recent years, more patents have been granted in the biological sciences, for computer software, and even for mathematical formulas. Biotechnology--the use of living organisms to make products--has had an impact in the patenting process. In 1987, the U.S. Board of Patent Appeals allowed a patent for a polyploid oyster, thereby supporting the idea that non-human celluloid multiple cell organisms are patentable. After four years of examination, the famous mouse patent (US4736866) was granted in 1988 for "transgenic non-human mammals."

Over 8 million inventions have been published worldwide since 1968.[5] Statistics show that in the United States alone, annual patent applications have more than doubled from 84,475 in 1960 to 174,711 in 1990.[6] It iS predicted that annual applications to the U.S. Patent and trademark Office (PTO) will reach 250,000 by the year 1995.[7] Such an information flow will make patents the most comprehensive and extensive literature in the world. …

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