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Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering Patents and Intellectual Property


The faculty and staff at the UAB Libraries are not lawyers and cannot provide legal advice. The services of the UAB Libraries are only intended to help educate you about searching for patents and other intellectual property materials. For legal advice, please consult a licensed lawyer.

Trademarks vs Patents vs Copyright

Intellectual property, as defined by Hayden Horner for his 2023 article for the Engineering Institute of Technology, "encompasses legal rights that protect intangible creations of the human mind, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. These forms of IP grant exclusive rights and control over use, reproduction, and distribution. IP fosters innovation, creativity, and economic growth." There are several methods for legally protecting valuable ideas that you've created: patents, trademarks, and copyright. But which of these should you pursue to protect your new invention? Let's take a look at some descriptions and examples from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

  What's Protected? Examples Duration of Protection
Utility Patent Inventions iPod, chemical fertilizer, process of manipulating genetics traits in mice 20 years from the date of filing regular patent application
Design Patent Ornamental (non-functional) designs Unique shape of electric guitar, design for a lamp 15 years
Plant Patent Newly invented plants Flowering plants, fruit trees, hybrid plants 20 years from filing date
Copyright Books, photos, music, fine art, graphic images, videos, films, architecture, computer programs Michael Jackson's Thriller (music, artwork and video), Windows operating system The life of the author plus 70 years (or some works, 95 years from publication, and others 120 years from creation)
Trade Secret Formulas, methods, devices, or compilations of information which is confidential and gives a business an advantage Coca-Cola formula, survey methods used by a pollster, new invention for which patent application has not
been filed

As long as information remains confidential and functions as a trade secret

Trademark Words, symbols, logos, designs, or slogans that identify and distinguish products or services Coca-Cola name and distinctive logo, Pillsbury doughboy character As long as mark is in continuous use in connection with goods or services - renew by year 6, then at year 10, then every 10 years

USPTO. (2019, September 13-14). Patents, trademarks, and copyrights: An overview of intellectual property [Conference presentation]. Invention-Con 2019, Alexandria, VA, United States.

Why is patent searching different?

Normally when we are planning to conduct a search for information in a database, we have to start with keywords that we expect to lead us to results. For example, if I wanted to learn more information about an iPhone, I might go to my favorite search engine and type in "iPhone," which would yield results like these:

  • Images/videos of iPhones or people using/reviewing them
  • Webpages where I can purchase an iPhone
  • Various versions of the iPhone
  • News articles discussing iPhones
  • Wikipedia article discussing the history of iPhones

While that might be useful information, it isn't going to give you background on the intellectual property aspects of the iPhone - what about this device is protected so that other manufacturers can't make their own copy to sell?

In order to find the patent(s) related to the iPhone, we cannot simply search for "iPhone" in a patent database. Conducting a search for "iPhone" in the USPTO Patent Public Search Basic database yields over 82,000 results that may not even include the one you're interested in! Unlike books, music, and movies, patents are not required to have original titles or to contain product brand names. It is much more likely that an invention's patent will have a title that is more descriptive about the purpose of the invention or, perhaps, the materials used to make it. Believe it or not, the original patent for the iPhone (and the ones that followed with subsequent versions) is simply titled "Electronic device."

Image from Andre, B.K.; et al. (2012). Electronic device (U.S. Patent No. D672,769 S). U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Because key words are not going to work the way we're used to, it's important to strategize how we can effectively conduct a "prior art search" to determine what patents might exist that are similar to the product we want to invent and patent ourselves. A way to generate some search terms that may help you find patents for certain devices is to start by asking yourself the following questions. (Used with permission from a Patent Search Strategy Worksheet created by the University of Iowa Libraries.)

  1. Describe your invention
    1. What does it do? (Essential Function)
    2. What is it made out of? (Physical Structure)
    3. What is it used for? (Essential Effect/Intended Use)
  2. Think of other related keywords or synonyms.
    1. Who will this be used for?
    2. What are additional components?
    3. What is the expected result?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a very useful seven-step strategy for searching for U.S. patents. This same strategy can be used in other patent databases for international patents as well.

Patent Databases

While the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) might be an obvious place to start, there are some other patent searching tools that you may find a little more approachable. Here are the tools I recommend most highly: