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Patents: What is a patent?

Patents are very tricky to search for. Use this guide to learn the what, why, and where about patents, and get started with your search.

A patent is a type of intellectual property. It is a document that describes an invention and grants the holder the exclusive right to manufacture the invention in the country that granted the patent for a limited amount of time. In order for an invention to be granted a patent, it must be:

  1. novel or new (be the first in the world)
  2. useful (be functional and operative)
  3. non-obvious (not be obvious to someone skilled in that area)

You could request a patent for a process, machine, article of manufacture, composition of matter, or an improvement to any of these things, but there are some things that cannot be patented, such as:

  • Laws of nature
  • Physical phenomena
  • Abstract ideas
  • Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (these can be Copyright protected).
  • Inventions which are:
    • Not useful (such as perpetual motion machines); or
    • Offensive to public morality

For more information, UWaterloo's Office of Research - Waterloo Commercialization Office has Information about Intellectual Property describing what a patent is and what is and isn't patentable. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office has a useful A Guide to Patents on the web.

Patents have their own structure and terminology, so if you've never seen one before it can be daunting. Visuals and descriptions of a patent are available through Pennsylvania State University Library's document: