Patents and Trademarks: Patents

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  • What are patents and why do they exist?
    • A patent is federal protection for inventions registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
    • Patents help protect inventions by "excluding others" from making, selling or offering for sale, using, and importing into the US.
    • Patents can be owned by individuals or organizations - usually an invention developed while working for an organization belongs to that organization.
    • Patents do expire at fixed terms, unlike trademarks that can be renewed indefinitely.
    • Patent applications can be provisional (cannot become a granted patent) or non-provisional.
  • What are the different types of patents and how long can they last?
    • Utility Patents (20 years): most common type of patent that protects function (process, machine, composition, manufacture)
    • Design Patents (15 years): protects design of an article of manufacture
    • Plant Patents (20 years): protects asexually reproducing distinct varieties of plants invented or discovered
  • What can be patented?  Patents must be:
    • Real, not a theory: someone could use
    • Clearly described with how to make and use
    • New or novel: cannot be something that already exists
    • "Non-obvious" in context of something already invented
  • What is not patentable?
    • Ideas, laws of nature, physical phenomena (no one can "own" gravity!)
For more basics see:
(image credit: USPTO)
  1. Brainstorm search terms: determine related terms like synonyms or other names for the item (shoes might also be called footwear).
  2. Search Patent Public Search and other US patent databases: Patent Public Search is USPTO's official database plus other databases might be useful like Dimensions.  Make sure to format your search string appropriately for each database.
  3. Review the results found above that are similar to your invention, including all parts of the patent such as the drawings and claims.  Make sure to organize your results and keep track of what you review!
  4. Expand the search with CPC classifications and review the new results.  Be sure to use the manual as needed and look into training options too.
  5. Check cited references that will be listed for each patent for more possible similar inventions.
  6. Broaden your search with international patent and discipline-specific databases, reviewing new results.
For more details review USPTO's Multi-Step strategy that includes links to more resources.

NASA concept for a flying car with fold-up wings.

Let's say you're looking to get a patent for your new flying car that your company has designed here in the USA.  It is capable of vertical take off and landing plus is powered by completely renewable energy (like a certain movie franchise from the late 1980's)...  Probably you'd like to protect how it flies - take off, landing, flight.  How would you get started?



  1. Brainstorm search terms:
    • Car: car, automobile
    • Flying: flight, flying, aerial
    • Vertical capabilities: VTOL, "vertical landing", "vertical takeoff", "vertical take-off" (VTOL = Vertical take-off and landing)
  2. Develop your search string and conduct a keyword search in selected databases
    • Search string: (car OR automobile) AND (flying OR flight OR aerial) AND ("vertical landing" OR "vertical take-off" OR "vertical takeoff" OR VTOL)
    • Keep in mind that search results can include patent applications, but this string results in around 2,200-2,300 patents found in both Dimensions (filtering for US patents) and Patent Public Search
  3. Review the results found above that are similar to your flying car, including all parts of the patent. You might use a citation manager or other systematic method to review your results after exporting.
  4. Expand the search with CPC classifications and review the new results - in this case if you've been following developments in flying cars, you might look up existing patents from Alef Aeronautics to help.  You find they have a couple patents and looking up one (
    • CPC classifications found: B64C3/18, B64C25/32, B64D27/24, Y02T50/60, B64C3/385, B64C3/26, B64C39/062, B64C3/14, B64C3/187, B60F5/02, B64C25/06, B64C2003/142, B64C29/02, B64C39/066, B64C2009/005, B64C37/00
    • Which covers:
    • These all have relevancy to your invention, so you'll need to pick the most relevant ones out of the categories and add to your search. Example of picking a group and subgroup out of classification.
      • Dimensions: search to group or subgroup level
        • (cpc_group:B60F5 OR cpc_group:B64C3/14) yields around 520 patents in search
      • Patent Public Search: can search similarly as in Dimensions to group or subgroup level
        • (B64C3/14.cpc. OR B60F5.cpc.) yields around 560 patents in search
  5. Check cited references, such as for US-11485490-B2 mentioned above: includes other US and foreign patents plus a NASA publication
  6. Broaden your search with aerospace databases and international patent databases such as:
    • AIAA Aerospace Research Central
    • Espacenet
    • Dimensions - filter for all except US patents

There are 5 main categories as you go from your idea through maintaining your patent (see details on USPTO's Patent Process Overview):

  1. Prepare to apply (focus in this guide!):
    • What kind of IP protection (patent or others)?
    • Is it patentable?
    • Search for existing patents
    • What kind of patent?
    • Cost?
    • International protection needed?
    • Do you need a lawyer?
  2. File application
  3. Application prosecution - patent examined
  4. Receive your patent
  5. Maintain your patent via fees based on type and entity

Note: IEEE Xplore includes patent citations, not filterable in searches for patents.