By Charles Oppenheim, Senior Consultant

Samuel’s patent locomotive feed engine. Samuel’s patent continuous expansive locomotive engine. Credit: Wellcome Collection

The library and information professions are familiar with copyright, and will have knowledge of registered trademarks, as they will have come across services and products with such marks.  However, they may not be as familiar with the other major type of intellectual property, patents. Yet they may encounter them, either as part of a search for a patron, or if making or using an invention.  

Patents are one of the most fundamental sources for scientific technical and engineering research results, and every library and information professional who has to deal with this subject should make themselves familiar with them.  This blog provides a basic introduction to what patents are and why they are important.

Unlike copyright (which is automatic as soon as someone creates something new), patents have to be applied for, with payment of fees required.  And whilst copyright normally lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator, and registered trademarks in theory can last forever as long as renewal fees are paid, patents have a limited lifetime (usually 20 years maximum, and even then only if renewal fees are paid). Furthermore, the fees payable are substantial. 

Patents give the owner a monopoly right to make, use or sell an invention, and/or the license others to do so. Patents have been around for a long time – the first patents for invention were granted in the 15th century.  The word “patent” is Latin for “open”, and refers to the fact that all patents are published and available for scrutiny by any interested party – hence their importance to library and information staff.  As implied above, patents relate to inventions – something that is either entirely new, or more often, an improvement on an existing product.  Patents can only be obtained for products, or methods of making products.  Some countries have allowed patents for software, but this is a controversial area, and many take the view that software ought only to be protected by copyright (and possibly trade marks).

Anyone (an organisation or an individual) can apply for a patent.  There are national patents (such as UK) and transnational patents (such as those granted by the European Patent Office, which is nothing to do with the European Union; the UK will remain part it after Brexit is completed). An application is put in together with a fee, and the description of the invention is considered by a patent examiner, who is looking for novelty (is this completely new) and obviousness (is this an advance on the existing state of the art). The examiner does not see the invention in action, or have any regard of its usefulness. Many patents are granted for what are in effect useless inventions that will never work or have no potential market.  The UK Patent Office currently charges £310 for a patent application – a bargain compared to the cost of many gold open access publishers. But it must be said that the vast majority of patents relate to inventions that have genuine potential usefulness.

To test for novelty and to check for obviousness, the examiner will carry out searches through earlier patents, other publications, etc. – so they need to be skilled at information retrieval. I started my information career 50 years ago as a patent searcher in a pharmaceutical company and have never looked back! Most patent offices offer a two-stage publication process – an early published application, and the final granted patent, so one invention will result in two outputs. Add to that the fact that important inventions will require patent protection around the world, so the same invention appears as one or more patent documents in many countries.  This is a “patent family”, and when searching the patent literature it is important to be aware of which ones are part of a family, and which ones stand on their own.

Library and information courses often include training in patents and how to search them.  There are numerous online databases available to search the patent literature, including Derwent’s services, part of Clarivate. There are numerous websites on patents and patent information. Some of these resources, in no particular order, are shown below:

© Naomi Korn Associates, 2020. Some Rights Reserved. The text is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence (CC BY SA)