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Patents: A How-To-Find Guide

Information on locating full-text of patents granted worldwide.

Patent searching for genealogy research

Patent documents aren't just useful for the technical information they disclose. They can also be valuable documents for genealogical and/or family history researchers. Historical information on an inventor's location, associated people (such as co-inventors or attorneys), and even workplace (which may be listed as the assignee) can potentially be obtained from patent documents.

If you know the name of the inventor:

If the inventor's name is known, the fastest way to find their patent(s) is to use a database that allows searching by name. Due to database limitations, the USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database only allows name searching for patents published from 1976 to present. Therefore it is usually easier to use a tool that does allow name searching for all patents, such as:

You will likely need to use advanced search (Google Patents) or structured search (Lens) in order to specify that you are searching for a name and where you expect that name to appear. Typically the best option (field) to search for this is assignee or inventor.

If the name you are searching for is very common, the name alone may yield too many results. In this case, you will need to narrow your results using one or more of the filters available in the search tool you chose. Jurisdiction and date range filters (if known) may be most immediately useful.

Note: Text, including inventor and other names, from pre-1976 patents has typically been obtained using computerized optical character recognition rather than human transcription. This means that searches sometimes will not retrieve any useful results even when the correct name is known and entered, because the software has in some way misread the text. In these cases, it's best to try to track down additional information about the patent (such as the issue date or patent number) and use that to search.

If you know the date the patent was issued:

If you know the date the patent was issued or published, it is often fastest to go directly to the USPTO's Patent Full-Text and Image Database and search by issue date. Generally the quick search interface is sufficient for this.

First, be sure to change the date range being searched using the drop down menu at the bottom of the page. The default is 1976 to present. If you are looking for a document from 1975 or earlier, you must manually select 1790 to present.

Second, change the "Any Field" drop down to Issue Date

Lastly, type the date in the search box. The following formats will work:

  • YYYYMMDD (example: 19960103)
  • Month/Day/Year (example: 1/3/1996, Jan/3/1996 or January/3/1996 are all acceptable)

The -> operator can be used between two dates to specify a date range. Be aware that searching by issue date and using a date range can quickly get you too many patents to feasibly browse through. Older patents especially will have very little bibliographic information available on the search page, so It's best to narrow your date range down as much as possible, preferably to a single day, before searching.

Additional resources

If the information you have is limited and is not getting you to the patent document, try looking in the Gazette of the United States Patent Office. These hefty volumes listed information about all the patents granted in a given time period, including inventor names, patent numbers, and issue dates—all key information for locating the document. Volumes of the Gazette are now viewable and searchable online via HathiTrust and can help supply the bibliographic information needed to get to the patent document.

The USPTO did not publish patent applications prior to 2001. Beginning with the American Inventors' Protection Act of 1999, U.S. patent applications began to be published. If the person you are researching may have filed a patent application in 2001 or later, you may be able to locate that document using the USPTO's application full text database. Patent applications prior to that time were not published and are most likely not findable.

Helpful research guides

Check these other research guides for additional resources that may be useful for genealogy research:

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Erin Thomas
150 Parks Library
Iowa State University
515 294-9886