University Library at St. Cloud State University

MME/ECE 380 - Engineering Comm.: Patent Searching

Seal of the US Patent and Trademark Office


Three primary kinds of patents recognized by the USPTO

UTILITY PATENTS: granted for new and useful processes, machines, articles of manufacture, or new and useful improvement of manufacture

DESIGN PATENTS: granted for new, original and ornamental designs for articles of manufacture

PLANT PATENTS: granted for the invention, discovery and asexual reproduction of a distinct and new variety of plant
The Patent Searching Process

Before you begin

A successful patent has five components:
  1. The item or process it describes is NOVEL: unique, new, unlike anything else on the market
  2. The item or process it describes is NON-OBVIOUS: a person familiar with items or processes in the same field must find that your item or process is sufficiently new or unique that its creation is NOT so obvious conclusion or process that anyone could create it
  3. The item or process it describes has UTILITY: how useful is this item or process likely to be in a particular industry?
  4. The item or process it describes has PATENTABLE MATERIAL: the item or process must be something that patent laws can actually protect 
  5. The item or process it describes is SUFFICIENTLY DESCRIBED: the person applying for the patent must describe the item or process to a level that will allow others to recreate, test and use the item or process

Getting started: Describe your creation

There are many ways to begin a patent search, but virtually all begin the same way: with a thorough description of the thing, device or process you want to patent. You may want to get a thesaurus for this.

Break your item or process into individual components. For example, if you wanted to patent a tool that mowed your lawn by shooting a cutting laser across it, you'd want to break the item into the laser itself, its housing (the box or case in which it sits), the targeting device, and so forth. You also want to think of some additional terms that describe your device's purpose: lawn, garden, mower, etc.  Write down the terms for later use.

Prior Art

"Prior Art" refers to any information available to the public that might invalidate a patent application. This information might include approved and granted patents, patent applications, published journal articles, public demonstrations of a device or process, and so forth -- as long as it was made public. Remember, the purpose of this search is to ensure that your process or device is truly novel and non-obvious. For purposes of this course, we will confine our prior art search to patent requests submitted or approved in the United States. Use the keywords you used when describing your creation to look for patents on processes or devices that resemble your creation. 

Patent Searching with


While the USPTO's search engines, PatFT (Patents Full Text) and AppFT (Applications Full Text), are useful to professional patent researchers, they're also extraordinarily and unnecessarily complex. Fortunately, offers a much easier and quite comprehensive way to search for patents, both granted and in the approval process.
  1. Go to 
  2. Click the down arrow next to the blue "Search" button and choose "Quick Search."

  3. Enter a few of the terms you wrote down when describing your item or process. In this case, we'll continue with the example of a laser-enabled lawn mowing device and enter "garden," "laser," and "mow."

    Scroll to the bottom of the page and hit "Search."
  4. 38 results, including the first: "reel type laser lawn mower." Click on the name of the device to review the full patent document.
  5. You may find the PDF document a little easier to read. Look for the link to the PDF document, and click. 

  6. Read the patent document carefully. What makes this device different from our proposed laser lawn mower?
  7. Return to the original patent record in Note that the record includes a "Primary Class" classification number (56/1). You can use this to search for additional patents classified in the group in which your device is included.
Subject Specialist
Patent Search Engines

U.S. patent search engines

Free Patents Online (use this one first)

Google Patents

United States Patent and Trademark Office

     Patent Full-Text Databases from USPTO

International patent search engines


Global Search Patent Network

USPC/CPC Classification Systems
In 2013, the USPTO began to transition to a new classification system in order to make it easier to search patents across their countries of origin.The old U.S. Patent Classification (USPC) system is being replaced by the Cooperative Patent Classification system created by the European Patent Office. Beginning in 2015, the USPTO will use the CPC system, although patents will still be searchable with the old USPC system.

You may find it useful to scan the USPTO's classification page for a comprehensive view of both USPC and CPC systems: Otherwise, the Free Patents Online search engine offers as much flexibility and ease of search as most patent searches need.
Other ways to do a patent search
Useful legal information

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