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Research Guides@Tufts

Patents for Research: Overview

Sources and guidelines for using patents and trademarks as a research tool.

Tufts University Inventor's Guide

Obtaining Patents

Nowadays nearly all patents published by the major patent agencies are freely available on the web.  Although ancillary filing information may be restricted or only available for a fee, the contents of granted patents and many patent applications usually are available through online patent databases.

The USPTO also distributes copies of patents, as well as related research materials, through its Patent and Trademark Resource Centers (PTRCs), which are charged with assisting the public in obtaining information about intellectual property (IP) and are located throughout the USA.  These are listed in the PTRC Library List (the one nearest to Tufts is located at the Boston Public Library).  As a government repository, Tisch Library at Tufts collects U.S. patents in both print and microform formats; these are located in the Tisch Government Documents Collection.

Because of their availability through Tisch Library, PTRCs, and online resources, patents are not provided through Tufts’ interlibrary loan (ILLIAD) service.

Guide Scope

This guide covers the use of patents and trademarks in the research process, particularly for engineering, business, entrepreneurship, and related disciplines.  It does not provide guidelines on writing or filing patents.  For any patent activity related to the use of Tufts' resources, please contact the Office for Technology Transfer and Licensing.

America Invents Act

On September 16, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the America Invents Act of 2011 (Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, H.R. 1249).  Representing the first major patent reform bill in 60 years, the Act's purpose is to reduce barriers to innovation, speed up the introduction of new products to the market, create more jobs for U.S. workers, and hasten the awarding of good patents while weeding out bad patents and reducing patent litigation.   The Act also brings the U.S. more in line with other countries by transitioning to a "First-Inventor-to-File" system.

Introduction: Why Patents as a Research Tool?

Patents are rights granted by a government to an individual or legal entity.  These rights exclude other parties from using or profiting from an invention for (usually) 20 years from the date of filing.  Although the primary purpose of patents is to protect the rights of inventors from infringement on their designs, patents offer great value as a research tool.  They can be used for the following purposes:

  • To obtain information about new technologies.  Often the initial disclosure of an invention appears in a patent.
  • To understand the design fundamentals of an invention.  Patents describe the basics of an invention’s construction, including descriptions of materials, structures, and the science underlying them. 
  • To obtain additional sources of information and follow a chain of research.  In order to verify their uniqueness and utility, patents typically include extensive bibliographies of older patents as well as journal articles and other resources.  In addition, most patent databases enable hyperlinking from a particular patent to related ones. 
  • To learn from inventors who do not publish elsewhere.  Not all inventors publish.  Filing a patent may provide the only incentive for many inventors to describe the results of their research in a public forum.
  • To assist in brainstorming.  Both the text and images in patents can provide ideas for inventions or refinements to existing designs.
  • To improve product and design planning.  Studying patents help engineers and product managers avoid patent infringement, analyze the competition, and identify new IP opportunities.
  • To analyze companies and industries.  Patents, both individually and collectively, can provide insights into the workings of a business as well as the performance of specific economic sectors.
  • To understand the history of business and technology.  For historians and biographers as well as futurists, patents play a key role in explaining the course of events for inventors and their businesses as well as for the industries in which they operated - or perhaps created.

Despite their research value, patents present challenges:

  • Patents don't describe inventions as they appear in the market.  Patents may cover broader concepts and they don't specify the final packaging, detailing, manufacturing processes, trademarked names, and other aspects of products.
  • Patents don't include product names.  Searching patents by names of products, whether Formica or Blackberry mobile devices, rarely provides a direct path to the invention in question.  Final product names are often determined long after patents are filed (trademarks rather than patents protect product names).  In addition, the final product may be an amalgamation of several patents.   So searching patents for, say, Apple's popular iPad requires knowing that the relevant patent was titled “Proximity detector in hand-held device" and never once uses the term iPad.
  • Patents aren't easy to read.  Patents are legal documents and usually written by attorneys for analysis by patent examiners.  They lack the directness of specifications, technical standards, or other types of descriptive documents.  They often employ a specific legalistic vocabulary.
  • Patents aren't a true form of scientific literature.  While patent applications are subject to examination by patent examiners, they are not subject to peer review and are not required to demonstrate proof of success through experiments and processes usually associated with scientific research.

Subject Guide

Elizabeth Settoducato