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Patent and Trademark Resource Center: Introduction to US Patents


As defined by the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO): “A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention. Once a patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent without aid of the USPTO.”

Getting a registered patent is a very complex process, but the Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) at Fogler Library can help. We can't offer legal advice or advice about your invention or design. We can however teach you how to search the USPTO database of patents, and we can give you information about the patent application process.

The following information on this tab is an overview of the process, with links to more information. But always remember that you can contact the PTRC for help you have any questions. You can call the PTRC rep, John Hutchinson, at 207-581-3610 or send an e-mail to It's free of charge for everyone!

Of course, the most up-to-date and complete information can be found at the Patent section of the United States Patent & Trademark Center website.

Be prepared for the process! (And know the risks!)

Getting a patent can be a long, complicated and expensive process. There are fees involved with each step of the application process, which can increase if complications arise. Complications can be prevented by hiring a patent attorney, but of course, patent attorneys cost money as well.

Remember, having a patent is not a guarantee of success!

Literally millions of patents have been granted that have never been profitable. 

It's important to keep in mind that patents are publicly available. You'll have to describe your invention or design in great detail for the whole world to see. If secrecy is important, you may want to just keep the details confidential, as a trade secret.

This link is a list of patent-related fees from the USPTO site.

Staking your Patent Claims




The most important part of a patent application is the claims section.

The claims state what YOU the inventor have brought to the table. The claims define what will be protected by the patent if it is granted.


Drafting claims is an exact process, and they must be very structured. Most patents have more than one claim. Each claim has three parts:

  • Preamble - The preamble is an introductory statement that names the invention that is to be claimed.
  • Transitional Phrase - The transitional phrase (or word) specifies whether the claim is limited to only the elements listed, or whether the claim may cover items or processes that have additional elements. 
  • Body - The body of a claim lists the elements (also referred to as “limitations”) or steps of the named invention.

Claims can be tricky. If you make your claim too narrow, then it might actually make it easier for someone to avoid infringing your claim by making a small change. But if you make your claim too broad, it might be rejected by the patent office for not being specific enough.

For more information on claims, check out this page at Lens is a reputable organization that collects and facilitates scientific research.  

The Three Characteristics of a Patentable Thing


Cartoon with a woman's face and the caption "I love that you're so novel, useful and non-obvious".


The Three Characteristics of a Patent are Novel, Non-Obvious and Useful.

Non-Obvious means that your invention must not be obvious to someone with average experience in the field. If you have a design for a laser printer, your design cannot be considered an obvious innovation by someone familiar with laser printers.

Useful simply means that the device must serve a purpose. It has to do something!

Novel means that your invention must include elements that are new, not found in any existing invention anywhere. This includes all previous patents, as well as scientific literature, popular literature or even popular culture. The term to learn here is "Prior Art". This is a fancy term for any evidence that your innovation isn't original.

This link is the page on the USPTO website with more basic info about patents.

The Three Kinds of US Patents



There are three kinds of US Patents; Utility Patents, Design Patents, and Plant Patents.

Utility Patents are what people usually think of when they hear the word "patent". A Utility Patent can be a new device, process, material or innovation. 90% of patents are utility patents. The first utility patent was issued in 1790.

Design Patents are for ornamental designs meant for decoration only. The decoration cannot change the function of the underlying device at all. It must be only for decoration. Examples include fonts / typefaces, costumes, packaging and even emojis! The first US Design Patent was issued in 1842.

Plant Patents are issued to someone who has invented or discovered an asexually reproducing plant. Some examples include certain flowers, nuts, fruits and trees. The first US Plant Patent was issued in 1931.

More info about the three types of patents in on this page at the USPTO site.

Anatomy of a Patent


Some of the sections of a Utility Patent include:

  • Title
  • Applicant Name
  • Abstract
  • Diagrams (and descriptions of the diagrams)
  • Summary of Invention
  • Claims. 

Here's an example of a Utility Patent for a type of mousetrap.

Design Patents are different in that there are fewer claims usually. Take a look at this patent for a Star Trek themed windshield wiper, D795,156.

Drawing of a car with a Star Trek windshield wiper









Plant Patents generally only have one claim, but they usually have detailed descriptions of the plant in question. They are different in that it is more common for Plant Patents to have photographs of the plants rather than diagrams. Here's one for a plant called the Lavender Lightsaber, PP32,359.

Picture of a flower called a Lavender Lightsaber


Do I need a Patent Lawyer?


Cartoon of lawyer telling client: "As I tell all my clients, when the jubilant cries of 'Eureka' have died away, the patent attorney's job begins"

(Cartoon by Donald Reilly, 1967)

There's no requirement to hire a lawyer to assist you in applying for a patent. But make no mistake, getting a patent is a legal process. A patent is a legal document that has legal ramifications, and the laws governing them and the application process are complex. 

In theory, if you fill out the application properly with no errors, and the patent office has no objections, your application might move smoothly through the process. But if the examiner has objections or corrections, things can get very complicated. As mentioned above, patents are legal documents. When patent examiners communicate with you, they will use legal language. 

In addition, a patent lawyer will have experience in searching the patent database, technical literature and other sources to make sure that your invention has no precedents that would mean your innovation isn't novel.

Note: a lawyer can't just declare themselves to be a patent lawyer. A lawyer must pass a special Patent Law Bar Exam, separate and distinct from a state bar exam. Make sure to verify that a patent attorney has passed their state bar exam and the patent bar exam. PTRC staff cannot recommend lawyers! You may want to consult with the State Bar Association for a list of qualified attorneys.

Why should I get a patent?



A Patent gives an inventor or company exclusive rights over an invention.

Getting a patent can prevent others from profiting from your invention without your permission.

A patent protects your investment in your invention for a period of time.

It also can be a sign the potential investors that your business is a reliable investment.  You can license your invention to others or sell it as intellectual property.

If someone uses your property without permission, they can be sued for infringement. 

Important things to know about Patents (that many people get wrong)

  • US Patents only apply in the United States. There is no worldwide patent! If you want to patent your invention in other countries, you'll have to go through the process with them. And the rules of patenting inventions vary widely between nations.
  • Patents take a long time! The process of preparing a proper patent application can be arduous. And the period between the application and receiving the patent can take over two years! And that's if there are no complications!
  • Patents aren't a way to keep a secret! To get a patent, you need to describe everything about your invention clearly and completely. No secrets! And all patents are made available for anyone to see, no copyright. 
  • You can't patent an idea. You can't just say you have an idea for a better mousetrap. You have to describe the specific design of your mousetrap and declare which elements of the mousetrap are your innovations.
  • If someone infringes your patent, that's your problem! Don't call the USPTO if your patent is infringed! That's not their job. It's up to you to take legal action, and pay all legal expenses!

Getting Help



If you need help using Patent Public Search or understanding basic questions about Patents and USPTO policy, contact us at the PTRC here at Fogler Library.

E-mail is and phone contact is John Hutchinson at 207-581-3610. This service is free for anyone!

The USPTO has several offices that can help you in the process. One that deserves special mention is the Inventors Assistance Center. Unlike us at the PTRC, the Inventors Assistance Center can even help you fill out forms! Their number is 1-800-786-9199. TTY/TDD 1-800-877-8339.

This page on the USPTO website has a list of many other offices that can answer questions about every stage of the patent process.

What if I can't afford a patent lawyer?


If you can't afford a patent lawyer, you may be able to get free legal advice by going through the Patent Pro Bono Program ("Pro Bono" is legal jargon for free legal representation). This program is a nationwide network of independent regional program that can match inventors and businesses with patent lawyers.

The service is not guaranteed. You must meet certain income requirements. Also, the programs are rigidly divided geographically. If you live in Maine, you must use the New England Program (Fun Fact: According to the USPTO, Connecticut isn't part of New England. It's grouped in with New York and New Jersey).

Keep in mind that this service only provides for free legal advice. The applicant still pays all application fees to the USPTO. 

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