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Guide to resources to help you understand, search, and access patents.

What is a patent?

  • A patent gives a legal right to the patent holder to prevent other people from making, using or selling their invention for a limited period.
  • In order to be granted a patent, the patent holder must demonstrate that their invention is novel and capable of being made into a product or used as a process by industry. They must publicly disclose full details of their invention.
  • This means that patents can be an important source of information for researchers, much of which is not available in journals or conference papers.

Why use patents as an information source?

  • To study the historic development of technologies.
  • To identify work which has already been done in the field you are researching.
  • To identify experts in particular areas.

Note: Inventors must file patent applications according to the laws in each of the countries they want protection. Therefore, not all patents are identical for the same invention or in English.

Inequities in patents and innovation

The following resources highlight the continued inequities for BIPOC in acquiring patents and access to recognition for their inventions. Data on BIPOC patents is still incomplete due to the challenges of data gathering encountered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Black Economist's Research Finds A Blindspot On A Theory Of Innovation
Childs, Mary. 2020. “Black Economist’s Research Finds A Blindspot On A Theory Of Innovation.”
NPR interview with Dr. Lisa D.Cook about her research on historic inequities in innovation that examines how violence against Black American's in the early 20th century stifled innovation. Her full research is a paper entitled, Violence and economic activity: evidence from African American patents, 1870–1940.

Colorblind Patent System and Black inventors
Johnson, Shontavia Jackson. 2019. “The Colorblind Patent System and Black Inventors.” Landslide 11(4).
From the American Bar Association, this article discusses the history of Black inventions and describes the continued inequities in the patent system and access to technology for Black inventors and addresses the need for a multifaceted approach to improving access.

Leahy-Smith America Invents Act
Under the 2012 American Invents Act the USPTO was ordered to begin to collect demographic data on patent applicants. However, this is still a work in progress. USPTO developed a methodology for gathering this data using information from the Census, but the results were incomplete. There is currently no mechanism in place to require applicants to provide this data.

Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation
Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, John Van Reenen, "Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 134, Issue 2, May 2019, Pages 647–713
Researchers compared patent data to income taxes for recent patent recipients, and used that data to draw some inferences about socioeconomic class and access to innovation. This article looks at the challenges faced by inventors who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and discusses the work needed to correct this inequity.

Finding Patents

Patent websites and search tools
Research databases

Books on patents