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Patent databases are often overlooked as a source of basic science, research, and development
The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is underutilized as a resource of scientific and technical literature. More than 7.7 million US patents are available for free online, at www.uspto.gov (and at www.epo.org for the European Patent Office). All too often, scientists show up at meetings to present posters on work that has already been invented and published by others, but because those scientists searched only the literature published in scientific journals, important science and information was lost to them.
Lloyd Wolfinbarger, Jr.
There is a one-year timeframe during which a publicly disclosed (as in a scientific journal or poster presentation) scientific or technical invention can still be submitted as a patent application in the United States. There is no such delay in most of the rest of the world where public disclosure precludes submission of a patent application. Understanding this restriction is important to every science and technology based researcher for two reasons.
First, there is value to scientists (both established and students) in the potential funding of research and development (R&D) projects by private industry, which spends billions of dollars on such investments annually. Funding from federal and state governments is modest in comparison. The basic science that is available in the literature and patent databases can be turned into applied science with great benefits to society.
Academic institutions, therefore, need to recognize the value of intellectual property in the form of patents to their externally funded research programs, and to their faculty and students (who will be searching for positions and careers outside of academia following graduation). They can do this by encouraging less traditional grant applications, such as those from industry. The National Institutes of Health is not the only grant provider to science researchers in the US.
Second, although patents and their corresponding applications are not intended to convey the same content as peer-reviewed publications, there is vast data and knowledge included in patents. Inventors are obliged to convey the best method(s) of practicing their inventions and of providing data that supports the invention and its associated claims. Researchers can use this information to their advantage.
There is typically a three-year wait from the time an applicant files a patent submission and the time the patent information is uploaded to the national patent database. Patent applications, however, are typically published within 18 months of filing. Although the claims in a patent application may change before a final patent is issued, the specifics of the data and ideas rarely change. Of importance to the researcher is, therefore, the availability of new information in the patent literature at an earlier time than it would appear in the scientific literature.
The USPTO database is free and includes all patents published since 1976. The database is searchable electronically by keywords, including names, assignees, and subject areas. A complementary tool is the PAIR system on the USPTO website, which includes documents associated with the prosecution of a particular patent application, and thus, additional useful information.
Adding visits to the US Patent and Trademark website, in addition to reading published scientific literature, will open up new vistas to researchers as well as individuals charged with guiding technology development and innovation regardless of whether that individual works in an academic environment or in private industry. USPTO represents a tremendous resource for innovators and deserves attention.
Lloyd Wolfinbarger, Jr., PhD, is managing partner of BioScience Consultants, Norfolk, VA, firstname.lastname@example.org.