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What is a Patent?

What is a Patent?

Patents essentially provide inventors protection over their ideas.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a patent is “a writing securing for a term of years the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention.”  Patents were devised to promote creativity, such that the public may benefit from the inventions that one or more individuals create.  In return for the grant of patent protection, the inventors are required to publicly disclose their invention in such a way that anyone would be able to practice the invention once the patent has expired.

Each patent contains a technical description which is confirmed by a patent examiner to be both non-obvious and novel.  This means that it has an inventive or unique aspect that has not been previously known or practiced.  If the technology is considered “obvious,” or has been invented in the past, a patent is not supposed to be granted.  The technical description defines the scope of the technology in order to explain exactly the details that are protected by the patent.

Parts of a Patent

A patent generally has four important parts.  Each provides different levels of information about the technology and are valuable at each stage of a patent search.

  • Bibliographic Page – First page of a patent containing peripheral information which you can use to trace the document, also known as the “Patent Face.”
  • Drawings – Diagrams of the invention to assist with explaining the details of the technology.
  • Specifications – Substantive description of the technology, often clarified by the accompanying drawings.
  • Claims – Structured technical description, organized into independent and dependent versions, in essence listing the factors that make the technology unique.

The Bibliographic page of a patent holds the most value when you are initially reviewing either the Study patent or potential submissions.  While the Specifications and Claims include much more detail (very useful later in the search), the Bibliographic page can help guide your initial views of a patent.  Here are the main pieces of the Bibliographic page:

Patent Number

Typically found at the top right portion of a patent. This is considered a “Patent Number” for granted patents, and a “Publication Number” for pending applications.

Publication Date

The date when the patent was granted. This could also be the publication date of the document. Note that the earliest publication date may reside within the Priority Data section.

Title of the Invention

The title of the technology described within the patent.


Inventors credited with initial invention of the technology.

Assignee or Applicant

The current owner (assignee) or original applicant.  Patents may not be owned by the original inventors, but rather by a company or organization sponsoring the research.

Priority Data

An invention may be covered by several patents filed in different countries. The priority data reveals the first and original filing for an invention. The publication date of the original first filing is essentially the earliest known publication date of a patent.

US and IPC Codes

IPC stands for “International Patent Classification”. For easy tracking, patents are classified according to the technology area that they belong to. All patents are classified according to the IPC classes, but each country also uses their own classification system. For example: US patents are classified according to US classes, while Japanese patents utilize “F-Terms.”

Cited References

Literature (patent and non-patent) that is related to the patent technology, which is identified before or during the application process.  This literature is considered “Known Art” on AOP Studies.


Abstracts aim to provide a summary of the patented technology.  However, these can be limited and misleading due to the complexity of the technology, thus increasing the need to review the entire patent.

Representative Drawing

The drawing found on the first page is an example from the Drawing pages that provides the best representation of the invention.

Searching for Patents

In addition to serving as the primary driver of a Study (Study Patents), patents can provide value as a type of submission.  Patents are valuable because they provide clearly structured descriptions of the technology and are associated with official filing dates.  While Non-Patent Literature (NPL) can be more valuable due to its uniqueness, the date and source may be less reliable.

When using patent research databases, the keywords can be found throughout the abstract, specifications, or claims.  However, even if the keywords exist in the abstract, it is important to review the full specifications and claims to ensure that the technology is truly relevant.  Also, keep in mind that the bibliographic information and cited references can provide valuable information to continue driving your search, even if that specific document is not worth submitting.

For example, a search for patents owned by a specific company can lead to other relevant technologies in the same industry. Likewise, it may be useful to perform a search for all patents with a specific inventor to discover other inventions that may be relevant. The IPC codes can also lead to more relevant hits as keywords may often lead to totally unrelated items. Most importantly, the cited references can open doors to other prior art that cannot be captured by keywords.

The World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) has published the “Guide to Using Patent Information” if you wish to continue learning about how patents can impact your research.