Patents Overview

What are patents?

Patents allow someone to "exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling" an invention for a certain period of time in return for publicly disclosing their invention.

There are three main types of patents:

  • Utility - the most common, they cover machines, articles of manufacture, processes, compositions of matter, business methods, and improvements on them.
  • Design - protect the appearance of how something looks rather than how it works.
  • Plant - cover asexually reproduced plant varieties.

How do patents differ from copyright and trade secrets?

  • Copyright protects the reproduction of creative works, including literature, music, artwork, and motion pictures.
  • Trade secrets require companies to take reasonable measures to protect the secrecy of information of economic value.

Patent Searching

Patents provide enough information that someone in the field could reproduce the patented item. Thus, they are a rich source of technical information, as well as competitive intelligence. You may be interested in licensing a described technology from the patent owner, using technology from expired patents, or improving upon a previous technology and filing your own patent.

Searching US Patents

Google Patents - US

If you want to find some patents related to a technology, company, or individual, Google Patents is very easy to use. However, it does not include patent applications and does not work well for searching selectively or exhaustively.

United States Patent & Trademark Office - Patent Search

"The Seven Step Strategy" explains an exhaustive patent search approach, particularly important if you are considering patenting something. You can also just do an "Assignee Name" search if you want to find patents from a particular company.

Searching International Patents

Google Patents

Offers an easy way to search patents from different countries.


Searches European patents. Also provides an easy method of selecting particular patents and saving, exporting, or downloading them.

Canadian Patents Database

Access to the searchable Canadian Patents Database, as well as links to more information about Canadian patents, trademarks, etc.

Japanese Patent Database

Searchable database (in English) of Japanese patents--clicking "Searching PAJ" to search the abstracts of patents available online.


Offers full-text searching for over 40 countries. Provided by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Applying for a Patent

Is it patentable?

Patents can cover processes, machines, articles of manufacture, and compositions of matter. A patent must also be useful, novel and non obvious. If something was previously patented, available to the public, or described in a printed publication, then it doesn't meet the novelty requirement. For more information, see Patent Requirements.

Patent Application Options

  • Provisional Utility Patents - these allow you to file a preliminary patent enabling you to establish an earlier filing date while allowing you a year to put together a nonprovisional patent application.
  • Nonprovisional Utility Patents - most common type of patent, protects how something works
  • Design Patents - protect the appearance of how something looks
  • Plant Patents - protects asexually reproduced varieties of plants
  • International Patents - protect inventions outside of the United States; there are many options

For details on each of these options, see Types of Patent Applications/Proceedings. Also see the USPTO process for filing a patent


USPTO Inventor & Entrepreneur Resources

Covers patents for startups, trademarks for inventors and entrepreneurs, assistance available, and additional information.

Patent Practitioner Search

Provides a directory of patent attorneys. Besides yourself, only patent attorneys and patent agents may file a patent application with the USPTO. Patent attorneys have completed an additional certification beyond law school focused on patent law.

NDSU Technology Transfer Office

Helps NDSU faculty, staff, and students protect inventions that may be commercially viable.