Skip to Main Content
NAU Cline Library logo

ME 386W- Engineering Design: The Methods

A guide for the Mechanical Engineering junior level writing course

What is a Patent?

A patent is an intellectual property right granted by the U.S. Government to an inventor “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted."

  • Patents are defined by U.S. law, Title 35 of the U.S. Code.
  • There are three types of patents: utility, design, and plant.
  • Patents are examined and issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
  • The America Invents Act was signed in to law on September 16, 2011, changing several aspects of patent law.

Patents are an important part of many academic disciplines. As federal documents and intellectual property, they are a key source of technical information, but are found only occasionally in traditional literature searches and must be searched separately using U.S. Classifications -- keyword searching will result in a limited data set. 

Patents can be searched for new areas of research, for ideas to improve existing research, or to see if a product has already been developed.

“A patent document has much more detailed information about a [given] technology than any other type of scientific or technical publication. It is also a unique source of information; on average, seventy percent of the information disclosed in patents is never published anywhere else."

Source: Oklahoma State University Library Patents Guide

Why Search for Patents?

  • Explore state-of-the-art technology
  • Avoid duplication of research efforts
  • To learn how something works (diagrams, detailed description)
  • To find information on a company’s activities, or identify experts in a field
  • Gain protection for an idea or invention
  • It is estimated that 70-90% of technical information disclosed in patents appear no place else

Patentability/ Avoid Infringement:

The most common reason to conduct a comprehensive prior art patent search is to make sure no other similar invention already exists.  Patents are granted to inventions that are novel (new) and non-obvious.  If an inventor believes their invention is new, they must first conduct a prior art search before they apply for a patent. 

"Prior art" pertains to any previous mention of the technology or device in the public domain.  In other words, prior art searching must also include searching the internet, research databases, and other spheres besides granted patents.

Unique Technical Information:
  • ~70-90% of technical information can only be found in patents
  • see how others have tackled a particular design problem
  • avoid duplication of research efforts
  • explore state-of-the-art technology

Market Research:
  • track the intellectual property of competitors
  • see what companies (or competitors) have in their pipeline (what's the next big trend)
  • identify possible licensing opportunities
  • see who the leading inventors are with a field (e.g. headhunting)

Genealogy and Historical Research:


Source: University of Iowa Libraries Patents Guide

Patent Types

1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;

2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and

3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant

Patent applications
  • Patent applications are released to the public 18 months after the initial application. In the USPTO website patent applications are found in a separate database.
  • Term “prior art” – patent term meaning – Is there proof that the idea exists in the public domain somewhere?
    • If idea or invention has been disclosed anywhere (in the world) – not just in patents – it can invalidate your idea or invention. Prior art can be found in the literature of the field – dissertations, juried journal articles, trade journals, proceedings from meetings, government reports (anything in the public domain).
  • Not everything is patented – technology for the public good – HTML, the web, OR company or trade secrets, Silly Putty, Coca Cola

Application Types for Utility Patents: 

non-provisional application is the more common of the two.

One advantage of provisional applications is that they are less expensive. However, there are some important things to consider when filing a provisional application. Provisional applications are good only for 12 months. This means that you must file a corresponding non-provisional application during this time period to take full advantage of the extended 12 month time period or face the expiration of your provisional application.

Source: University of Iowa Libraries Patent Guide

What is patentable?

Inventions have to meet three main criteria:

  • Novel (unique and new, never made public in any way, anywhere, before the date of the filed application)
  • Useful
  • Non-obvious to someone skilled in the art (Note: to be patented, full disclosure of the technology must be provided.)


  • Process
  • Machine
  • Article of manufacture
  • Composition of matter
  • Improvement of any of the above

What cannot be patented? 
  • Laws of nature
  • Physical phenomena
  • Abstract ideas
  • Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (these would fall under Copyright)
  • Inventions which are:
    • Not useful
    • Offensive to public morality


Source: University of Iowa Libraries Patent Guide