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Patents: Quick Guide

A quick guide to introduce you to patents and patent search services



  • A patent is a legal contract and intellectual property (IP) right which protects a new invention, by giving the owner the right for a limited period of time to prevent others from exploiting the invention without permission. 

  • It means that the invention cannot be commercially made, used, distributed or sold without the patent owner's consent. It gives a detailed and technical description of the invention, and as such contains much information that may never be published in any other format.

  • To ensure legal protection for the invention, individuals and companies generally apply for a patent at the earliest possible stage; this means that new patents often provide the most up-to-date information available in a particular field, appearing before journal articles are published or new products reach the market

                                                                            Image credits: krawczyk

The rules governing what is patentable vary between countries. However, generally the invention must:

  • be of practical use and capable of industrial application, i.e. it must be an apparatus or device, a product such as a new material, or an industrial process or method of operation
  • have a new characteristic unknown in the body of existing knowledge in its technical field
  • have an inventive step which would not be obvious to someone with good subject knowledge and experience.

Items which are not patentable include:

  • Animal or plant varieties
  • Scientific or mathematical discoveries, theories or methods
  • Discoveries
  • Literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
  • Methods of either diagnosis or medical treatment by surgery or therapy
  • Ways of performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business
  • Presentations of information or computer programs.

A patent allows the inventor to:

  • sell the invention and all the intellectual property (IP) rights
  • license others to use the invention while the inventor retains the IP rights
  • discuss the invention with others in order to set up a business based around the invention

To keep a UK patent in force, it must be renewed on the fourth anniversary of the filing date, and then annually.  It can be renewed for up to a maximum of 20 years.  The inventor can choose not to renew it or to voluntarily cancel it at any time.

Differing rules apply in other legal jurisdictions.

The European Patent Office (EPO) website provides a set of online FAQs about various aspects of patents, including procedure and law.

The UK Intellectual Property Office has a wide range of information on patents, including applying for and managing patents and the law and practice of patents.

The Intellogist website provides much useful information. The Search System Reports section contains reviews of free and commercial patent search systems. The Interactive Patent Coverage Map offers a clickable world map enabling you to find the searchable patent databases that cover specific countries.The Quick Table Comparisons section allows side-by-side comparison of the patent search systems that have been reviewed by the Intellogist team . The Resource Finder section provides links to a range of search systems, databases, publications and websites for specific science and technology areas.

The World Intellectual Property Organization website provides information on various aspects of patents, including a set of FAQs and free to download digital versions of publications about patents.

The Intellectual Property Office has a range of IP related online training tools available and these will help you understand how IP works and what can be protected using patents, copyright, trademarks and designs.


Searching for patents and patent applications

FPO (FreePatentsOnline) is a free search engine for international patents, patent applications and patent abstracts. You can create an account, which allows you to save searches, organize, annotate and share documents, and set up alerts to notify you when new documents of interest are published.

The Lens is a worldwide, open access full-text patents resource, covering over 90 patent jurisdictions. You can search its patent database of over 98.5 million patents and applications. 

Google Patents allows you to search and read the full text of patents and applications from around the world, from USPTOEPOWIPODPMACIPOand SIPO.

Google Patent Search

Many of the national and international patent offices provide searchable patents databases, for example:

European Patent Office (EPO): the EPO's collection of over 90 million international patent documents is available online via the free Espacenet service. You can obtain official copies of European patent documents (applications and granted patents) via the European Publication Server

Intellectual Property Office (UK): the official government body responsible for UK intellectual property rights, which is responsible for examining and issuing or rejecting patents. You can search Ipsum to check the status and access information on UK patent applications. For greater searching functionality, use the Espacenet service of the European Patent Office. 

United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the federal agency responsible for granting US patents and registering trademarks. You can search for US patents and patent applications in the Patent full-text databases.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is a self-funding agency of the United Nations (UN), and is the global forum for intellectual property (IP) services, policy, information and cooperation. Its activities include services to protect IP across borders and to resolve disputes, and the provision of technical infrastructure to connect IP systems and share knowledge. Its PATENTSCOPE Search Service is a comprehensive searchable database of patents and patent applications.

When you are searching online databases, check the database coverage to see if patent information is includes.

For example, the content coverage for Scopus, shows that patent information is included. It holds details of 28 million patents from five patent offices:

  • US Patent & Trademark Office
  • European Patent Office
  • Japan Patent Office
  • World Intellectual Property Organization
  • UK Intellectual Property Office

This database is available via the Electronic Library. Run a search as normal and you will find  Patents results at the top of your results list, as shown in the screenshot below.





These online directories enable you to search for Intellectual Property (IP) and patents offices worldwide:

Information Centres

Patent information centres (collectively known as PATLIB, short for PATent LIBrary) can be found throughout the EPO member states. They have qualified and experienced local staff who can offer practical assistance on different kinds of intellectual property rights.

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