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Patents collection

The British Library is home to the national collection of patents and related documentation.

Patents - a definition

A patent is a contract between an inventor and a state. The inventor puts a detailed description of his invention into the public domain and in return the state grants him the right to prevent anyone else exploiting his invention for a limited period of time.

The document in which the inventor makes public the details of his invention is called a patent specification.

In the United Kingdom the patent system is administered by the Intellectual Property Office which provides detailed information on how the system works and on the processes involved in applying for patent protection in the UK.

Collection overview

The patents collection has its origins in the mid 1850s when a library for the newly constituted Patent Office was established in London. The Office’s first Superintendent of Specifications, Bennet Woodcroft, set up international agreements for the exchange of patent documentation and the material received was added to the library’s collection. The collecting of foreign patent documentation begun by Woodcroft has continued to this day and has created a resource of major international significance.

At the heart of the collection are millions of patent specifications published by patent offices throughout the world. These documents provide detailed technical descriptions of inventions and identify the individuals and companies associated with each invention. The collection also houses extensive collections of supporting documentation such as official patent journals, name indexes, subject indexes and abstracting journals.

Since the late 1980s, patent offices have been moving away from hard copy publication of their documentation, firstly to publication on CD and DVD and latterly to publication online. This shift to online publication will have a significant impact on our future collecting activity.

Using the collection

The information specialists in our Business & IP Centre at St Pancras will help you use the patent collection and find out more about how the patent system works. They have prepared a brief introduction to patents which you may find useful. The Business & IP Centre also runs a regular workshop Introducing Patents Searching, which is free of charge.

If you visit the Business & IP Centre you can use the Derwent Innovations Index database free of charge. This is an international patent database with high quality English language abstracts. It is an excellent tool for identifying patents linked to named inventors or companies and for searching in a particular area of technology.

If you want to commission a patent search, then our priced Research Service can help.

We can also give you contact details of other patent information centres in the UK which are part of the PatlibUK network and can help you find and use patent information.

We also have a collection of books and journals about patents, patent law and patent practice which can be found through Explore the British Library.