Good News! The IPAC is an official Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Steely Library is part of the nation-wide network of over 80 PTRCs.

A trademark is a word, name, phrase, or symbol which identifies and distinguishes the business or provider of goods, services, or ideas. Trademark applications may be more complex than copyright submissions and are granted by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). Trademarks registered with the USPTO are marked with an encircled letter “” while those registered by a state government or common law are marked with a “TM” after the trademarked name or symbol, e.g. NKU Norse logo shown here. The USPTO describes common law rights existing from actual use of a mark. From an economic standpoint according to, “…a trademark is just a symbol that allows a purchaser to identify goods or services that have been acceptable in the past and reject goods or services that have failed to live up to the desired standards, which will vary from consumer to consumer.”

You may also hear the expression “service mark,” or see the tag “SM,” which is basically the same. Where trademarks apply to products or brands, service marks apply to services by indicating the source. Common law allows posting a TM symbol without registration, but it is not as secure as registration with a government agency, e.g. federal or state government.

A patent protects unique processes, methods, and inventions. These are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Normally, the term of a patent is up to 20 years. U.S. patents are effective only within the United States. Patent protection for other countries must be requested individually for each country.  As exhibited on the USPTO website, there are three types of patents:

  1. Utility patents which may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
  2. Design patents which may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and
  3. Plant patents which may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

Patents require a lengthy research and application process that may necessitate the assistance of a patent attorney or patent agent registered with the USPTO. One must document proof that their processes, methods, or invention have NOT been patented before. There is an intricate U.S. Patent Classification system which one must utilize to search the patent database of the USPTO website. Keyword searching alone may not reveal previous patents issued which are similar. There are Patent & Trademark Resource Centers (formerly known as depository libraries) with librarians or specialists who are trained by the patent office to instruct inventors, entrepreneurs, and others how to search the patent databases. Resource Center librarians can assist patrons with learning about the U.S. Patent Classification system. However, most librarians are not intellectual property attorneys, so they cannot search the patent databases for patrons. These librarians are usually able to provide instruction on how one may use the USPTO databases and related resources for free. Steely Library at NKU is a PTRC. Other PTRCs nearby include, the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County (OH), Wright State University Library (Dayton, OH), and the Louisville (KY) Free Public Library.

Have questions about how to cite patents in your scholarly research or preliminary patent searching records? See Patent Citations guide within this IP Basics section of this site.

In addition to patents, an inventor’s notebook is another option to help protect a documented idea or discovery.  An inventor’s notebook (also known as a laboratory notebook) is used by inventors, scientists, and engineers as an official record of their technical work (calculations, experiments, ideas, etc.). It establishes the dates and times when an inventor worked on the development of an invention and shows the progress from conception of an idea through its reduction to practice. The America Invents Act (2011) changed the U.S. patent application grants from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file process. A lab notebook as a supplementary resource can still improve the outcome of a granted patent or a patent contestation. An inventor’s notebook needs to consist of a stitch bound composition notebook with numbered pages and all entries made in ink. Periodically one should have the entries witnessed, signed, and dated by an observer other than the author. For more, see Tamara Monosoff’s related article “Keeping an Inventor’s Notebook,” from Entrepreneur, June 12, 2006.

Other Intellectual Property types include trade secrets, licensing, digital rights management, and open source/copyleft. These are not associated with a government agency for registration and habitually involve some type of restrictive contract or technology. Open source/copyleft or Creative Commons works usually provide free permission upfront to share with others for personal, educational, and/or non-profit use.

For more about the basics of patents, trademarks, and copyrights, see United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Information on this page and other content from the IPAC website, programs, or services is provided for informational purposes only. Any information provided should not be considered legal advice. The IPAC seeks only to facilitate related information and community connections to further IP awareness. Any information received from IPAC should not substitute for securing legal advice from a licensed attorney.