Patents provide a wealth of potentially useful information. In the course of our practice, we have used them to determine where individuals have worked and to track down hidden assets in money disputes.
The Constitution authorizes Congress to enact patent laws, which are codified in Title 35 of the United States Code. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is designated for managing the patenting process, patent records and advises other government branches regarding intellectual property matters.
As defined by the USPTO there are three kinds of patents:
1) Utility patents for a new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
2) Design patents for a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and
3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant
Patent Application Information Retrieval (PAIR)
Patent applications become public 18 months after the first filing date. The USPTO maintain the Patent Application Information Retrieval (PAIR) system which can be used to search patent files on a number of different criteria including the name of the inventor, their attorney's name and the name of the patent examiner.
USPTO Patent Search Room
The USPTO has a Patent Search Room located at Madison East, First Floor, 600 Dulany Street, Alexandria, VA. This room contains:
• Complete patents available in numeric order since 1790 on microfilm and optical disc format
• Patent application publications and related records (decisions, assignments, etc.)
• Official Gazettes, Annual Indices of inventors, Manual of Classification and Subject Matter Index, and other search aid
Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLS)
Each state has at least one Patent and Trademark Depository Library. These libraries receive currently issued patents and maintain archives that may date back to the first patent in 1790. (http://www.uspto.gov/go/ptdl/ptdlgen.htm)
Written Requests to the USPTO
Any individual patent can be requested online or through the USPTO (for a small fee). If you cannot make it to the Patent Search Room or a PTDL for a preliminary patent search, you may order copies of lists of patents or cross referenced patent in a specified subclass. Letters should be mailed to the appropriate office of the USPTO. For each inquiry, a dif- ferent letter is required. If requesting a patent application, the inquiry should include the patent application number (series code and serial number). For issued patents, informa- tion about the patentee name, invention title, patent number, and date of issue is required. (http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/doc/general/index.html)
Google has compiled a database of over seven million patents, with summary information and downloadable PDFs of complete patents. (http://www.google.com/patents)