Librarian offers snapshot of patent history

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Patent and Trademark Depository librarian at the Illinois State Library

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Patents originated in 17th-century England - and the king owned every one, according to Jane Running, recently retired Patent and Trademark Depository librarian at the Illinois State Library in Springfield. By the late 18th century in the United States, though, the king had lost a lot of ground

Running says the distinction of having 'canonized' the concept of authors and inventors owning their own patents belongs to the United States, as does the idea that the first person who invents something - if he or she can prove it - owns the rights to that thing. In some countries, the first person to appear at the local patent office, whether or not he or she invented the item, can become the owner.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in the Department of Commerce, has charge of such matters in this country. In 1980, the patent office began establishing a nationwide network of official Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries; today, 88 such facilities exist around the country, including Running's home base in Springfield.

She says the Illinois State Library joined the network in 1984, and she described the federal and state support of that depository as excellent. On hand are such resources as bound volumes of the annual index for almost every year since 1790, the year the first U.S. patent was issued, as well as personal computers, CDs and more recently DVDs, along with microfilm and readers. And new search tools are appearing all the time.

Each year representatives from all the depository libraries also go to Washington for special training, Running says. In those sessions, the librarians are immersed in patent office history, which begins with that first U.S. patent, which was for a component of gunpowder.

By 1836, Running says, some 10,000 U.S. patents had been granted, and then, the patent office burned. 'A call went out to inventors to return their patent documents so copies could be made, but the response was varied.' In cases of very important patented inventions, such as Eli Whitney's cotton gin, Samuel Colt's revolver and Cyrus McCormick's reaper, the patents were reconstructed as best they could be in Washington.

After 1836, all new patents were numbered, starting with '1,' and as a consequence, Running notes, the 'first patent' and 'patent number one' are different - just one of the many idiosyncrasies associated with patent research today.

In 1872, the patent office began publishing its Official Gazette as a means of providing patent news to the public, and today that publication is another important research tool. Previously, the Scientific American had served as the unofficial source of patent information, a duty, Running says, it reluctantly gave up.

Also in 1872, the government regularized the date on which patents were issued to Tuesdays. So, sometimes, such as in 2001, patents are granted on Christmas Day. Also last year, they were granted on Sept. 11.

In granting a patent, the office considers three criteria, according to Running: novelty, utility (usefulness) and obviousness, 'which is where it gets squishy.' Each patent issued is constitutionally protected as 'intellectual property,' she adds, and they are granted only for what are described as 'the useful arts'.'

No two are for the same thing, but new patents may be issued, and often are, for improvements to a previously patented item.

Three categories exist: Utility patents, subdivided into 'general and mechanical,' 'chemical' and 'electrical;' Design patents, which usually show a picture of the outside of something, and, since 1930, Plant patents. Running says the color photographs of the plants that come in with those patents are extraordinary. About 14,000 have been granted to date.

Most farm inventions fall into the 'general and mechanical' area of Utility patents, which again is subdivided into 'devices,' such as corn shellers, 'processes,' such as how to make potato chips, and 'new games.'

For years, official depositories of patent information were located only as far west as St. Louis, making research a real challenge, but today, in addition to the 88 depository libraries, the Internet provides another very comprehensive source of information.

Running says the address for the federal Web site is www.USPTO.gov. To find the locations of the depository libraries, go to the 'Site Index' there, click on 'P' and go to 'PTDLs.' Located there is a listing by state of all the depository libraries, with contact information, including the librarians' names. 'Most of us are awful nice people,' Running says of her counterparts across the country, 'with a lot of curiosity about what's out there.'

Interested persons also can get more information on the patent depositories by calling the patent office in Washington, D.C. Just dial 1-800-PTO-9199 and ask for the Independent Inventors Office or the Depository Program Office, or dial 1-703-308-HELP, the patent office's help line.