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A guide to help ASU students find patent information including what is a patent, the different sections of a patent, how to do a prior art search, where to find statistics and other sources of patent information.

The Agencies ...

U.S. Patent and Trademark Building front facade
U.S. Patent & Trademark Office
Alexandria VA
photo by Lydia LaFaro




WIPO building in Geneva
World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)
Geneva, Switzerland




EPO building in Munich

European Patent Office (EPO)
Munich, Germany


A patent is a government grant bestowing certain property rights on the inventor; these rights usually permit the inventor to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention.

United States Patents

In the U.S., three types of patents are granted:

  • Utility patents
    Are granted for any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof. Utility patents have a term of 20 years from date of filing. For more details about what can be patented see General Information Concerning Patents: Section 4, What Can Be Patented?
  • Design patents
    Are granted for a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Design patents have a term of 14 years from date of issuance. More details about what is a design patent, are available at Design Patent Application Guide:  Section 1, Definition of a Design
  • Plant patents
    Are granted for asexually reproduced, distinct, and new variety of plants. Plant patents have a term of 20 years from date of filing. More details about what is a plant patent, are available at General Information About 35 U.S.C. 161 Plant Patents: Section 1, What is a Plant Patent?

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is responsible for examining patent applications and granting patents in the U.S. The USPTO is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. There are no Arizona State agencies involved in the patenting process.


International Patents

World Intellectual Property Organization
There are over 100 countries and/or agencies worldwide that grant patents. Each country has its own laws governing intellectual property.  See the Directory of Intellectual Property Offices (WIPO) for a listing.


Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT)

Patents designated as "WO" (ex. WO0116074) are PCT applications. The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) is an international agreement among 100+ countries so that an inventor may file a single international patent application that confers certain advantages. The most important advantage is the extention of the time period in which an inventor must file in other countries, thereby delaying expenditures and giving the inventor more time to consider the necessity or viability in filing with specific countries. By the end of the PCT time period, the inventor must file with those countries in which protection is desired. In the United States, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office handles PCT applications. For more information:

The Format & Content of a U.S. Patent

U.S. Patents have different "formats" depending on when they were issued.   Starting in 1976 (and in some classifications prior to that), the first page is used to summorize the patent's information and is followed by the drawnings, description of the invention, and lastly (but most importantly) the claims.  Prior to 1976 the first part of the patent contained the drawings followed by a page in which the first section was a very brief summary of the patent information, followed immediately by the description of the invention and lastly the claims. 

View the image "Anatomy of a US Patent" in which the sections of a U.S. patent are identified.  (Created by Michael White, Queens University)


The contents of the sections of a U.S. patent consists of: 

Front Page (1976 to the present for all patents, some categories of patents from 1970 to the present); Summary Section (prior to 1970)

  • Patent number and date of issuance
  • Inventor's name
  • Inventor's address at the time of issuance
  • Assignee's name and address if the inventor assigned the patent and informed the Patent Office of such prior to issuance
  • Application number and date of filing
  • U.S. class(es)/subclass(es) in which this patent was placed at the time of issuance; prior to the 1970's only the primary U.S. Classification was included.
  • Number of claims
  • The following information is now available on the front page but was either not included or not consistently included on pre-1970's patents:
    • The International Patent classes equivalent to the U.S. classes/subclasses in which this patent was placed
    • The U.S. classes/subclasses in which the patent examiner and/or inventor looked to find similar patents (Field of Search)
    • Related literature (aka the "prior art") such as patents, books, journal articles (References Cited)
    • Patent Examiner's name
    • Attorney, agent or law firm representing the inventor (if the inventor employed one)
    • A one paragraph description of the invention (Abstract)
    • Number of drawings
    • A drawing representing the invention 


The drawings help convey the features of the invention and, along with the description, are used to explain all the claims.   

The description is a detailed disclosure of the invention.  In modern patents, the description generally starts with background information and then gives a full disclosure of the features of the invention.  The description must be detailed enough so that someone who is "skilled" in that field could reproduce the invention plus the description must explain and support all the claims.   Sometimes the description is called the specification(s) portion of the patent. 

Although the claims are the last element of a patent, they are the most important part. This is where the inventor specifically states ("I claim") what s/he invented.  Essentially the claims define what the inventor may prevent others from manufacturing, using and selling; the words and phrasing of the claims are critical to establishing the extent and/or limitations of the invention.       

Format & Content of International Patent

Although each country or patenting agency has it's own format and content for patents, essentially all patents contain the same information as U.S. Patents do:

  • Summary of patent information
  • Drawings
  • Description
  • Claims


In Espacenet's Worldwide Database, the searcher is given two choices to view the patent:

  • The Original Document may be displayed as it was issued by the country/patenting agency, or
  • Any one of the following sections may be displayed separately:
    • Bibliographic data
      Very similar to the front page on U.S. patents, contains patent numbers, inventor assignee names, patent title, etc., but it also includes equivalent patents from other countries and a link to other international patents that cite this one.
    • Description
      In some cases a machine translation of the description to/from English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish is offered.
    • Claims
      As with the Description, in some cases a machine translation of the claims to/from English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish is offered.
    • Mosaics (drawings)
    • INPADOC Legal Status

Be Aware: not all patents in the Espacenet's Worldwide Database have the full features/options listed above.

More "About Patents"

Want to know more about patents?   The following is available from the USPTO:

  • Costs for applying and issuing a patent. 
  • Flowchart showing the steps in the patenting process.
  • How Long patent protect lasts. 
  • Know if your invention is patentable. (2nd question on page)
  • What can and cannot be patented. (3rd question on page)
  • Who can apply for a patent. (4th question on page)

Check the full Patent FAQs file for much more information. 

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