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A Trip To The Patent & Trademark Office
By Mary Bellis

part of the examiner file library at the PTO public search facility
The Patent Examiners' Patent File Library
Patent & Trademark Office, Arlington, Virginia

Visiting the PTO:
The Patent and Trademark office is located in Crystal City (I heard the PTO may be moving), a section of Arlington, Virginia, along the Jefferson Davis Highway (U.S. 1) between the Pentagon and the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. I was surprised to discover that over 60,000 people live in Crystal City, because the place feels like a drive-thru zone. The huge ten-block area has parking lots, shopping malls, tunnels and walkways. Everything was created in the same brown brick and white stucco, the ultimate in late 1980s architecture. I'm glad to say the people are all human, even if the environment is not. Crystal City is full of warm and helpful people who don't mind telling you the difference between Crystal Plaza 3, Crystal Gateway 3 and Crystal Square 3. They are used to people looking for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Museum. The museum itself is a disappointment (could they have found a smaller room?), but what is on display is well worth the visit. If you have business elsewhere with the PTO, try to make it over there.

U.S. Patent & Trademark Museum
2121 Crystal Dr, Suite 0100
Arlington, VA 22202
(703) 305-8341

Patent Searches:
The real fun started when I finally found the "Patent Search Room" which contains copies of all U.S. patents issued from 1790 to the present. The patent back file collection in paper form is arranged in accordance with the U.S. Patent Classification System. The collection is also available in numerical order on 16mm microfilm and in bound paper volumes. Automated searching is available by use of CD-ROM products and APS-Text Search. You can receive training to use the APS-Text Search, which I suggest you do since the per-hour rate is nothing to sniff about. Paper, microfilm and CD-ROM searches are free. Staff members can assist customers in locating appropriate files and reference materials, within reason (outside reason, they will charge you).

Patent Search Room
2021 South Clark Place
Crystal Plaza 3, Room 1A01
Arlington, VA 22202
Open weekdays (except holidays) from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. For information, call 703-308-0595.

The first place I visited was the collection of the early "Patent Office Reports" and "Official Gazettes," a historical treasure trove of innovation kept in dusty, almost-ready-to-fall-apart hardcover volumes with pages and pages of every mousetrap made in America. After perusing a few horse-and-carriage patents, I headed across the room to examine the paper stacks. This is where I struck up a few conversations with the patent rats, a group of hardcore inventors who can't stop doing patent searches. Actually, a few inventors have turned their sharp search skills into an interesting line of work by doing professional searches for others. I was informed (tongue in cheek, of course) that you had to be crazy to want to do a job like that.

Getting a Patent: All about patents, the patent application process and guides to filing.
In summary: The Patent and Trademark office is the place to apply for a patent. This is when you are going to have to tell everything about that invention you have been keeping a secret for so long. I suggest that you first read General Information Concerning Patents and Patent FAQ. About one in five patents issued were issued to pro se applications where the inventor filed without the help of a patent attorney or agent. Conversely, that means 4 out of 5 patents issued were to those inventors who used the help of a lawyer or agent. Applying for a patent is not an easy process, but whatever you decide to do, educate yourself first about the patent process. Our subject page on patents is an excellent resource of information.

Continue with >> What is the United States Patent and Trademark Office? What is a patent and what is the history of patents?

all artwork ©MaryBellis

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