What does a patent look like? To see an authentic example of a patent, you must first know how to use the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office's database. To view an example, let's take a look at Patent No. 5,255,452 filed on June 29, 1992: Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" dance move.
Searching for Patents
Compared with copyright and trademark search databases, both of which can be found on the U.S. Copyright Office and PTO websites, respectively, finding an example of your desired patent is considerably more difficult. The PTO makes available for public use two databases, in which you can search for and view issued patents and patent applications (see Resources). But until you know how to use this powerful tool to get a patent example, it may seem like an exercise in futility. Here's where the PTO's search tips come in handy (see Resources). You can search for existing patents in a variety of ways, including by the inventor's name and/or city, patent number, issue date, patent attorney name and many more search criteria.
What you cannot do is search for a patent by its trade name. Say you want to view Michael Jackson's process-based patent for the "Smooth Criminal" dance move. While it might make sense to plug "Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal" into the PTO's search engines, the correct way to find this patent example is to use the title terminology, "Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion."
Similarly, searching for a patent by its brand name--Hula-Hoop, Vaseline, Blackberry Phone--will yield you no fruit. This is because those search terms are the trademarked name of the invention and do not describe how it works. A patent can often be thought of as the scientific language that describes the process of creation itself rather than the actual product.
Patent Example: Smooth Criminal
Because you know that Michael Jackson patented the process of his dance move, it's fairly easy to find this patent in the PTO database. This patent's abstract describes this as:
"(a) system for allowing a shoe wearer to lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity by virtue of wearing a specially designed pair of shoes which will engage with a hitch member movably projectable through a stage surface."
Once you find a patent, you can read all about its "claims" (how the invention works), as well as the background of the invention and if it relies on "prior art" (a previously-patented invention). Along with the patent itself, you can view any pictures or abstracts that were submitted with the patent application and approved by the PTO. Patent No. 5,255,452 is quite explanatory; after reading this patent, there's no reason why you too can't do the "Smooth Criminal."
What We've Learned About Patents
If you have a tool, gadget or electronic device with a patent number on it, all you need to do is enter this number into the PTO database, and you can view its patent. If you know the inventor's name, you can see everything that he or she invented (however, patents issued from 1790 through 1975 can only be searched by issue date, patent number and current U.S. classification).
By viewing an example of a patent, it's clear to see that they are extremely intricate and complex. Something as seemingly simple as a dance move used by a famous entertainer requires specific scientific language to describe it. Rarely if ever do inventors make their own applications--they rely on the services of patent attorneys and patent agents who know how to successfully "prosecute" a patent and get it approved by the PTO.