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CHEME 4620: Chemical Process Design (Spring 2018): Patent Searching

Companies can own many types of intellectual property, including patents and trademarks. Technical innovations are usually protected through patents so the inventor can control their rights to commercialize production, use, distribution and sales during the protected period (20 years in the US) in the territories covered by the patent. Patents do provide technical information that may inspire other inventions, and may be available for license. Patent searching can be helpful during research of:

  • Prior art in the case of filing a new patent - is the invention novel, does it overlap protected technologies?
  • Patent infringement in the case of protecting patents - are other patents or commercial products infringing on the protected rights?
  • Freedom-to-operate in the case of developing new products - would commercial production, marketing and use infringe on other patent holders' rights? 

See the World Intellectual Property Organization for more background. (Note, ultimately these determinations involve legal opinion.) 

Patent Classification

The International Patent Classification provides a system of codes for comprehensive searching, chemistry is one of eight sections covered. Chemistry related patents are granted in the following areas:

  • pure chemistry, which covers inorganic compounds, organic compounds, macromolecular compounds, and their methods of preparation;
  • applied chemistry, which covers compositions containing the above compounds, such as: glass, ceramics, fertilisers, plastics compositions, paints, products of the petroleum industry. It also covers certain compositions on account of their having particular properties rendering them suitable for certain purposes, as in the case of explosives, dyestuffs, adhesives, lubricants, and detergents;
  • certain marginal industries, such as the manufacture of coke and of solid or gaseous fuels, the production and refining of oils, fats and waxes, the fermentation industry (e.g., brewing and wine-making), the sugar industry;
  • certain operations or treatments, which are either purely mechanical, e.g., the mechanical treatment of leather and skins, or partly mechanical, e.g., the treatment of water or the prevention of corrosion in general;
  • metallurgy, ferrous or non-ferrous alloys.

Patent Coverage

From WIPO: In conducting an Freedom-to-Operate (FTO) search and analysis, it is worth bearing in mind that some of the limitations on patents also offer potential opportunities. For example:

  • Patent protection is territorial. While a certain technology may be protected in a company’s main markets, it may be in the public domain in other countries. In the latter, no permission (or license) is needed from the patent owner in order to commercialize the product.
  • Patents have a limited duration. Patent protection lasts for a maximum period of 20 years. Thereafter, a patent is considered to be in the public domain and may be freely used by anyone. Moreover, the European Patent Office (EPO) estimates that fewer than 25 percent of all patents granted through the EPO are maintained for the maximum 20 year term. Many patents are allowed to lapse through non-payment of maintenance fees by the patent holders before the 20 years are up.
  • Patents have limits of scope. The claims section in a patent document determines the scope of the patent. Any aspect of an invention not covered by the claims is not considered to be protected. That said, it is not always easy to determine the scope of a patent. It requires considerable experience in interpreting the claims, the written specification and the history of the application process.

Patent Databases

Patents can be searched by classification code or keyword. Results from keyword searching will vary both by the technical language used as well as the database algorithm for synonyms, etc.

Patent Territories and Types

Patent regulation varies internationally, and many patents are filed in multiple authorities, such as the United States Patent & Trademark Office (US), the European Patent Office (EP), and the China Patent & Trademark Office (CN). A list of patent country or authority codes are available via ESpaceNet. Information about the multiple filings (patent families) can be found in most patent databases. 

The USPTO issues several types of patents:

  • Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof.
    (Note, chemistry related patents are of this type.)
  • Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.
  • Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
  • Provisional patents establish early “claims” without the formality of filing a patent and inventor can use the term  “Patent pending” but  must file a “non-provisional” patent within 12 months.

Kind Codes provide additional information about the type and status of a patent (for example A1: Patent Application Publication).