Prior art (state of the art or background art), in most systems of patent law, is constituted by all information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality. If an invention has been described in the prior art, a patent on that invention is not valid.
Information kept secret, for instance, as a trade secret, is not usually prior art, provided that employees and others with access to the information are under a non-disclosure obligation. With such an obligation, the information is typically not regarded as prior art. Therefore, a patent may be granted on an invention, even though someone else already knew of the invention. A person who used an invention in secret may in some jurisdictions be able to claim “prior user rights” and thereby gain the right to continue using the invention. As a special exception, earlier-filed and unpublished patent applications do qualify as prior art as of their filing date in certain circumstances.
To anticipate the subject-matter of a patent claim, prior art is generally expected to provide a description sufficient to inform an average worker in the field (or the person skilled in the art) of some subject matter falling within the scope of the claim. Prior art must be available in some way to the public, and in many countries, the information needs to be recorded in a fixed form somehow. Prior art generally does not include unpublished work or mere conversations (though according to the European Patent Convention, oral disclosures also form prior art). It is disputed whether traditional knowledge (e.g., of medical properties of a certain plant) constitutes prior art.
Patents disclose to society how an invention is practiced, in return for the right (during a limited term) to exclude others from manufacturing, selling, offering for sale or using the patented invention without the patentee’s permission. Patent offices deal with prior art searches in the context of the patent granting procedure.