The Productive Scholar: Patents and Patent Searching from a Librarian’s Perspective


Patent_MT.jpgCC license, Steve Snodgrass, via Flickr.

David Hollander, Law and Legal Studies Librarian at Princeton, and Willow Dressel, Assistant Librarian at Princeton’s Engineering and Furth Libraries, gave a talk on Wednesday, February 9th about the history of patents, the complexity of the law behind them, and how one can use this knowledge to perform better patent searches to find patents, and how to conduct historical research on past patents and patent applications.

Hollander began the talk by remarking that the concept of protecting inventions and ideas had been a part of English law for hundreds of years before the existence of the United States. The first idea of something like a patent can be found in laws relating to English craftsmen’s guilds. In the U.S., an inventor’s right to an ideal was written into the original version of the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Cause 8, by the inclusion of the phrase allowing congress “[t]o promote the Progress of the Useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Inventors the exclusive Right to their  Discoveries.

This language authorized Congress from the very beginning to grant and protect patent rights, and the idea of patent protection was passed into law in the first Patent Act of 1790. Since then, these concepts have undergone only three major revisions (with many smaller amendments and changes): patent acts were passed in 1793, 1836, and 1952, the last of which is the version that is still current today.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was formed by Congress to handle the application process for, and granting of, patents. Challenges to patents are handled by the U.S. court system. What are the basic steps involved in securing a patent and what are the results of a successful application?


First, the inventor must prove that he or she has come up with a new, useful and non-obvious process or product.

Second, if the patent is granted, the inventor is entitled to a 20-year period of patent protection. During that time the inventor has the exclusive right to, make, use, or sell the invention.

Hollander continued to say that there are two main views of what a patent represents. First, some view the patent process as a means to ensure further progress and invention by virtue of the fact that patents are made public for others to study. By securing the inventor’s rights, disclosure of a new invention can further the state of the art in that particular area. Some others regard the patent process as largely protective of private property, because an inventor has the right to keep any new invention or process secret. The patent process mediates in this case to make disclosure possible through the government’s guarantee of 20 years of exclusive rights to the inventor. In both cases, disclosure is a prominent part of the patent process. Patents are by nature public.

The specific terms “new,” useful, ““non-obvious,”“process and “product.” are critical to understanding patent law. The concept of “process,” or “product” is a description of the actual thing being patented. There are several types of patents including “utility,” “design,” “plan,” and other patent types, however utility is by far the most common. A process, a machine, a manufacture, or a composition of matter can constitute the basis for a patent that describes a new process or product. A useful improvement on any of these aspects of invention can also warrant granting a new patent that builds on an older patent. Nothing beyond this list of four categories can be patented. Ideas, for example are not patentable.

Computer-related patents raise an area of ambiguity in patent law, because computers rely upon math and algorithms to operate. Math is regarded as a “law of nature” by the patent process, and until recent decades, was not patentable. Because of this, early inventions in computing were not patentable, although that opinion has relaxed somewhat in recent years, as the lack of protection for inventor’s rights became an obvious detriment to progress in computer technology.

How then is a new patent application examined for viability? According to Hollander, there are three main points of consideration for a successful patent application:

First is novelty. In order to investigate this quality, events that occurred before the patent that might have anticipated its development are examined, and the current state of the art related to the patent in the U.S. and other countries is examined.

Second, the patent must show some degree of minimal usefulness. If a new invention has no perceived use, it cannot be patented.

Third, the patent must be non-obvious. Even if it was never done before, if it is deemed to be an obvious aspect of the art to which it applies, it is not patentable.
Although these criteria might seem very subjective, the Patent Office employs a 3-part test to validate claims of a new patent. The Office examines:
  • The scope of prior art
  • The difference between the new invention and prior art
  • The level of “ordinary skill” required to have come up with the process or product represented by the patent.
Hollander explained that “ordinary skill” is defined by that of an ordinary person who is also skilled in the subject area of the process or product, and if the new patent describes something that would be obvious to someone familiar with that art, it cannot be declared a new invention.
Inevitably, patents are also infringed, challenged, and otherwise questioned, which leads the discussion to the topic of “remedy.” In the instance a new invention is thought by a prior patent holder to infringe on an earlier patent:
  • The new patent’s claims are examined against prior art
  • The original patent’s is compared to the newly patented invention’s or process’s claims
  • The courts decide whether or not an infringement has taken place

Multiple similar patents that are filed at the same time, a process called “an interference procedure,” trying to determine which application has priority.


Hollander cited an example of a complex patent challenge in a current case of Microsoft vs.. a small company, i4i, which successfully sued Microsoft for patent infringement. The courts decided in favor of i4i, and granted a hefty settlement, but Microsoft has twice challenged that decision, arguing that Microsoft knowingly infringed the i4i patent, but that patent was wrongly granted in the first place, and so, was invalid. (The technology in question was the use of custom XML, patented by i4i, and used by Microsoft in Word 2007). Here is a link to i4i’s summary of the case so far. An account of the same case from The New York Times can be found here.) The case is expected to go to the Supreme Court later this year.


A question from the audience about international patents prompted Hollander to explain that patents can be filed in different countries simultaneously, a labor-intensive process. Alternately one can file a patent in any country that abides by the Paris Convention of Industrial Property—which gives the applicant a one-year grace period for filing in other countries.


The third option for international patents, Hollander explained, is to file under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, to which 125 countries have agreed, before filing in any other country. This also gives the inventor a one-year grace period for filing individual patents, but patent applications under this treaty must subsequently be made individually in other countries.


Hollander concluded by showing a patent for “pet display clothing,” a wearable structure that allows a pet owner to carry small pets like gerbils in visible tunnels on his or her body. Despite the extensive, and somewhat ridiculous drawings of the “pet display garment,” the only part of the patent application that mattered in securing this odd patent are the list of claims at the end of the application.


Willow Dressel next explained how to use various web-based searches to find existing patents for research and discovery. For those searching for patents because they want to file their own patent, Dressel recommended engaging a patent professional for the most accurate and comprehensive results. Professionals are best qualified to do these sort of searches of prior art in patents, whether they are a patent attorney, or–in the case of patents arising from work-related inventions at Princeton–the Intellectual Property and Licensing Office, part of the Office of Research and Project Administration at the University. However, a desire to file a patent is not the only reason for doing patent searches, and Dressel explained several resources that aid in doing comprehensive patent searches.


Dressel showed a LibGuide she has made containing a list of links to resources to aid in patent searches for scholarly and historical reasons. For legal advice on patents relating to research, she referred the audience to the website of the Intellectual Property and Licensing Office, cited above, which can advise inventors on patenting inventions and processes that arise from their work at Princeton.


There are many reasons for searching patent literature, for historical research, where as she remarked “patents are a great gateway into the literature of a particular field or technology,” and can simply help to understand how things work. Patents also contain a wealth of information about research, as many corporations do not publicize their research interest, but are obliged to file patents for new discoveries. Each patent contains references to prior patents that relate to that technology. Patents also contain a lot more information about a process or invention than is generally available otherwise. Particularly since the patent office has records of patents since 1790, the literature can provide an unparalleled historical view as well as providing a greater understanding of how certain inventions and processes developed over time.


Dressel emphasized the importance of defining synonyms for search terms describing patents, by thinking of the words that describe an invention or process, and consulting a thesaurus to find similar terms in order to conduct the most productive and complete searches. A huge keyword set will help in making the most fruitful searches. Searching patents, said Dressel, is an iterative process that can be added to as new searches provide more ideas for searching.

Patents can also be searched in a specific field by using the class numbers defined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Citation searches contain references to patents that refer to other patents, as each patent cites references to other relevant patents.


A Google search for “free patent search tools” revealed several sites of more or less value. The U.S. Patent Trademark Office database is the authoritative guide, with the most current documents, but full-text searches are only available for patents since 1976. Patents from 1790 to 1975 can only be searched by date, classification number, or patent number.


Free Patents Online combines keyword searches for European Patents, and other World Patents, and combines both applications for patents as well as patents in their database, two sources of data that would require separate searches at the U.S. Patent Trademark Office. This resource, however, also has ads.


Google Patents attempts to provide full searching of patent documents from 1790 to the present, but the searches depend upon many documents, some handwritten, that were scanned, and which may miss some terms that were not recognized by the optical character recognition used by the software.


Dressel used Free Patents Online to search for touchscreen technology in mobile devices, using terms “mobile,” “computer,” “input,” “phone,” as search terms. The search revealed that each patent is filed under a code that describes the class of technology that the patent belongs to, and the classifications can be nested by hierarchy into other classifications. As an example, Dressel searched for inventions that might relate to touch-screen input technology for mobile devices. She demonstrated how one needs to think about a variety of search terms that might relate to a touch screen, and discovered a fairly recent patent that contained a large amount of information that could lead in other directions for searches in this area. The search result turned up patent titles and a excerpt of each abstract, listed in order of relevance. Looking at a patent for a “touch screen for a mobile telephone,” revealed a summary of the patent application, its primary class, its inventor, and a PDF of the actual application.


Following the primary class listing, Dressel visited a link to the U.S. Patent Trademark Classification listing for the patent she found, in order to visit the classification homepage to find out more about that classification number. (She pointed out that U.S. classification numbers can be translated into European classification numbers using tools on the Patents Online site, which extends searches to other countries.) Drilling down on the patent classification for “visual display systems” revealed a number of entries in the hierarchy of that classification, as well sub-classes and parent-classes indicating their level within the classification hierarchy. Both patent applications and patents were returned in the search at Free Patents Online.


Dressel concluded by mentioning a catastrophic fire in the U.S. Patent Office in 1836, when all the patents from 1790 to 1836 were destroyed. Only a few–less than 3000–of the lost patents were eventually recovered from other sources, for example patent holders who had a copy of a historic patent. Because of the loss of information, all pre-fire patents were renumbered, beginning with an “X,” to show that they are part of this fragmentary period of record. There are other databases at Princeton, Dressel explained, that help to cover the missing data from pre-fire patents, scans of supporting documentation for lost patents. A special tab on Dressel’s LibGuide labeled “1836 Patent Fire” provides information about how to find information about patents prior to 1836.


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Lunch & Learn: Arts libraries on the edge with Darwin Scott, Sandy Brooke and Hannah Bennett


Decode2009.jpg Where do I shelve that? Photo of Decode, a digital art installation at the V&A, London, December 13th, 2009. Photo courtesy of Rain Rabbit, Flickr. CC license, 2009.

Note: to access resources cited in this blog post, you must either be on a machine on the Princeton University network, or have a VPN or proxy server running on your machine. For instructions on how to set up a VPN or proxy server connection, click here.

“These are exhilarating times to be arts librarians,” said Darwin Scott, librarian of the Mendel Music Library at Princeton. Today’s Lunch ‘n Learn session explored just how exhilarating – and challenging– it is to deal with new modes of delivering various media to library patrons, when the media exists outside the traditional collection of books, manuscripts, disks, drawings and other tangible assets one usually thinks of as library holdings. The presenters represented the three main arts repositories at Princeton; Darwin Scott was joined by librarians Sandy Brooke (Marquand Library of Art and Archeology) and Hannah Bennett (Architecture Library), to discuss their respective collections.

Sandy Brooke began the session by describing the tension between a library’s mission to collect, provide access, and preserve for the future, in an age where digital media seems to be increasingly difficult to quantify in terms of ownership, shared access, and sustainability. “Old literature is good literature for art historians,” Brooke said, explaining that scholars rely upon important documents from past centuries. Marquand’s holdings are still largely print-based, she noted, however, there is an increasing number of digital versions of both text- and image-based references. Art has traditionally been studied through surrogates, whether photographs, drawings or descriptions of works that are either housed in remote places, or may no longer survive.

A new form of art–that which is born digital–presents certain challenges to those who would study it, because the delivery medium is no longer a surrogate for the work, but may be the work itself. Digital art is often recorded on perishable media, the formats of which can migrate to incompatible formats in a fairly short period of time. It might be posted directly to the web, and lost when its link later disappears. The work itself might be a record of an ephemeral event that is almost impossible to capture in its entirety. When offered for distribution by a vendor or dealer, its licensing terms can be extremely limiting and restrictive with regard to how the work can be later viewed, shared, or migrated to more stable digital formats.

Such licensing terms, Brooke noted, are much more restrictive than the terms of fair-use usually applied to educational use of copyrighted materials. Many digital objects handled by dealers and vendors are delivered with the idea of restricting access to them, thus creating an artificial scarcity. Ensuring future access to this media that comprises an original work is uncertain, since access is often provided via an online resource with a fee-based delivery method. If the online resource were to go out of business, its digital content might well be lost.

As an example, Brooke showed an installation by Swiss video artist, Pipilotti Rist (1962 – ). Brooke cited Rist’s  Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), an award-winning 2008 installation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, as a problematic example for scholarship. What resources would a researcher today have to study this recent work of art, since it is no longer viewable at the museum?

Brooke showed several still photos of Rist’s work found in ArtSTOR, an online database for the study of art history, but found no images of the 2008 MoMA installation. The artist’s own website contains links to her gallery and some visual references to other video projects, but not the MoMA installation. The MoMA website has some valuable documentary video footage about Rist’s installation, but there is no video that presents a complete idea of what it was like to experience the complete work in situ. A YouTube search offers the MoMA videos again, along with two amateur videos made by people who attended the exhibit while it was at the MoMA; one of these videos, obviously shot with a cell phone, is enhanced by a sound loop provided by the amateur videographer–however it is music composed by the phone’s owner that has nothing to do with the original installation. Since Rist’s works tend to deal in dreamlike, distorted imagery, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the distortions seen in the YouTube clips were intended by the artist, or simply a result of a highly-compressed, low quality copy of the original work. Authorized digital copies of such ephemeral works are typically priced at hundreds of dollars apiece, so collecting them on any scale is beyond the financial resources of most repositories; trying to capture something tangible and complete about such works, as Brooke demonstrated in the searches described above, is no easy matter.

For the moment, Brooke concluded, the sustainability of this kind of digital art is uncertain; questions of rights, of access, of preservation are only partially answered by current means of distribution. Guerilla websites such as, a web-based educational resource that operates on a gift economy, posts avant-garde works under an assumption of fair use. was created in protest to the marginal distribution of these elusive works, but the fact that the site sometimes knowingly violates copyright in posting links makes their sustainability tenuous, at best. Many of the sound and video works on the site are represented by highly compressed video and audio files introducing uncertainty as to their accuracy; as with the YouTube video of Pipilotti Rist’s video installation, it’s impossible to say whether the files represent the artist’s vision–or the technological limitations of a bad digital copy. More sustainable solutions may be in the future, however. Brooke mentioned the Electronic Arts Intermix site, a not-for-profit venture that is trying to preserve digital art for cultural repositories such as libraries and museums. An educational streaming solution to providing high-quality copies of video art for art libraries is one licensing model being considered by this organization, which has preservation and sustainable access to video art as its two chief missions.

Architecture librarian, Hannah Bennett, next described some of the unusual challenges faced by those wanting to preserve records of contemporary architectural works. Long gone are the days of architectural drawings being produced i
n drafting rooms, with paper being the medium that recorded a building’s design from first inspiration to the delivery of final plans to builders. Digital rendering of architecture is now the standard method for design, a method that creates a dense stream of information that originates from architectural offices, and eventually results in documents that builders can work with to construct the building. In fact, the transmission of architectural information from architect to builder these days is commonly referred to as BIM – building information management–where the information critical to making the building is captured, but certain aspects of the design process might not be preserved. This partial capture of data creates a new level of complexity for those who would like to study the entire history of an architectural work.

Most information that is ultimately transferred to builders, Bennett explained, is taken by sampling from the complex array of digital data that is generated in the design process. As illustrated, Bennett showed several examples of architectural renderings, including some of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by architect Frank Gehry. Gehry, in common with other architects currently in practice (including many of Princeton’s faculty members in the School of Architecture), developed a pioneering proprietary software program, CATIA, to realize his particular design methods. Other firms have since developed their own software unique to that particular architectural office or project..

Bennett showed some examples of design sketches made by Princeton faculty member, Axel Kilian, and demonstrated the CADenary software that Killian developed for his own design practice. These tools allow for amazing flexibility in terms of drafting complex shapes, but their uniqueness means that it may be a challenge to read the files they produce in the future. Bennett commented on this reliance on technology, saying that “design language has now become internal to tools, rather than to the form.” As enriching as a complex design such as Bilbao is to architecture, preserving the output of many different proprietary software packages presents a set of preservation challenges for custodians of architectural history.

Bennett enumerated the queries posed by these new design tools. “How will they maintain technical currency?” she asked. “How will we archive them?” And, ultimately, “how will we present them to the future scholar?” Bennett concluded her portion of the talk by showing some hanging loops of chain used by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) to explore the catenary curves he often used in his architecture – in a photograph someone just happened to take of that experiment. “Older material can be equally valuable” Bennett said, citing this early architecture experiment exploring forms that are very hard to draw using traditional drafting tools. Today’s computer-generated architectural designs present a myriad of such capture-able design moments – and librarians need to find a way to preserve them for future scholars.

Darwin Scott, librarian at Mendel Music Library, concluded the Lunch ‘n Learn by discussing various online databases used to present digital copies of music and the performing arts. Scott mentioned that rights management is a major consideration in this area as well as in other forms of the arts, even though the resources for presenting them via subscribed services are more numerous.

Rights issues, particularly in the case of theatrical works, become more and more complex as more people (and their intellectual property) become involved in a production. “Most recordings of Broadway shows are illegal,” Scott noted. Older forms of media that preserved works such as concerts, or plays were “collectable objects.” Tapes, disks, LPs and other media at least provided one way that an event could be captured and preserved–and purchased to form part of a collection. By contrast, streaming libraries of musical and dramatic performances provide subscribers with thousands of recordings for an annual fee, but this model provides an interesting challenge for a library collection, since the library does not in fact “own” the content to which it subscribes. This raises important questions about sustainability and preservation.

Several vendors of streaming services promise that they will provide a form of perpetual access to the material in their library to subscribers in the event they go out of business. This usually means that data files will be available in some form for bulk download, but perhaps not with a sustainable model to preserve the user interface that makes it possible to use them. Scott mentioned some commercial streaming services that are available to retail consumers. Until recently, institutional clients had been shut out of the distribution model for these popular services. However, some distributors are now bridging the gap by providing high-quality streaming subscriptions for libraries and other cultural institutions. Scott demonstrated a few of these services, using the Quick Links section of the Mendel Music Library’s home page, and Scott’s own Lib Guide list of links to music and performing arts resources.

The Naxos Music Library, various collections from the Alexander Street Press, and DRAM (The Database of Recorded American Music) were among the collections that Scott featured in his presentation. Naxos, a respected record label, offers a large collection of musical recordings of various genres, including classical, jazz, folk, blues and world music; DRAM also offers streaming music; here, the focus is on American composers and performers. The Alexander Street Press offers a wide variety of sound and video offerings, including Opera in Video, Dance in Video, and Theater in Video. The videos offered from the Alexander Street Press not only will play on your computer, but are captured in a high enough resolution to project on a larger screen. A new service from Alexander Street even allows you to stream some of this content of these collections to your compatible mobile device (currently supported are iPhones on a 3G network or better, and devices running the Android OS) by using a link, a text message containing the link, or a QR reader on the device. These links stay current for 48 hours, allowing plenty of time to enjoy the content. Recent enhancements to the library’s online catalog also allow direct links to many of these digital assets via searches done in Princeton Library catalog.

sendtomobile.JPG Got a QR reader? Get ballet! A screen shot of the ballet Sleeping Beauty, showing the interface to mobile devicesThe video content in the Alexander Street databases come from various sources. For the Theater in Video collection, many of the videos are drawn from performances intended for broadcast television, Scott noted. TV content also accounts for much of the Dance in Video collection, whereas the Opera in Video collection has more access to commercial releases. The quality and range of the works offered are sometimes not ideal, although in some cases, they record spectacular performances. Each vendor also uses their own proprietary user interface – there is no standardization–so it can take some time to familiarize one’s self with each interface in order to get the best results. Links to the resources mentioned in this post–and many more–as well as tips to help users navigate and search these online repositories can be found in this PowerPoint presentation, which Scott prepared for Lunch ‘n Learn attendees.

The session concluded with Darwin Scott’s summation about it being an exciting time to be an arts librarian; the challenges presented by the diversity and volume of new media types also make this a wonderful time to be a subscriber to many online resources that make it possible to experience art, architecture and the performing arts in increasingly accessible ways. The fact that old media has little in common with new forms of delivery presents challenges for librarians and for patron access, but as sources for these materials become increasingly more numerous and more diverse the end user and the scholar can only benefit–and enjoy.

Got bandwidth? Welcome to live performances on a device near you!

Lunch & Learn: “e-Readers in the Classroom?” with Janet Temos, Stan Katz, Dan Kurtzer, and Trevor Dawes

Student with a Kindle

In the Fall term of 2009, Princeton conducted a pilot sponsored by the High Meadows Foundation, the University Library, and the Office of Information Technology, to assess the use of e-readers in the classroom. The reader used was the Amazon Kindle DX, a lightweight, portable e-reader with the capacity to hold approximately 3500 books, in three University courses.

The project aimed to explore the use of the e-readers in classes for which e-reserves were the primary readings. The printing of e-reserve readings at Princeton accounts for a large portion of printing in public clusters (total of 10 million sheets of paper last year). The e-reader pilot sought to target e-reserve readings and present them on an e-reader to see if printing could be reduced.

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Lunch & Learn: Princeton’s Partnership with Google Books

Image representing Google Book Search as depic...
Image via CrunchBase

The Google Books Library Project is a collaborative effort between Google and more than 20 academic libraries and publishers to scan and make searchable major research collections. When books are out of copyright and in the public domain, the public can now use Google Book Search to view bibliographic information, to read and search the texts, and even download them.

Google Books is a product resulting from the combination of the Google Library Partnerships (29 libraries) and the Google Publishers Partnership (many thousands)
The library project began in 2005 with Harvard, the New York Public Library, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and Oxford University.Princeton joined the project in 2006. Many other institutions of higher education and several publishers have now joined the endeavor.

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World Digital Library: Your Portal to Digitial Cultural Artifacts and More

world_dig_lib_logo.pngToday I discovered the World Digital Library. The mission of this site is to create a centralized place where you can access digital items and artifacts from different times, cultures, and parts of the world and to raise awareness and understanding across cultures. Some of the items that you can view are maps, stories, images, rare books, music, films, recordings, prints, and photographs. You can view the site in several different languages, like Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, and Russia. When you click on an item, you get a brief description of it, when it was created, the creator (and/or who financed the item, like a painting), the place, topics, and other related items. It’s a great knowledge of wealth to use in the classroom, personal studies, or personal interest. To learn more, you can visit the site by clicking on the link below: