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Inventions are classified according to the International Patent Classification (IPC) schema. This helps enormously in making the information contained in the millions of patent documents worldwide accessible through searches.

Currently there are around 70,000 different classifications. These are regularly updated and refined based on the state of the art. After a classifications revision, patent documents are newly classified accordingly. The internet version of the classification (IPC WIPO) is considered the official version and can be viewed at the web site of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Another useful publication for the IPC, especially the German version, is the German Patent and Trade Mark Office (IPC DPMA).

The International Patent Classification (IPC) is divided into the following major sections:
A Human necessities
B Performing operations; Transporting
C Chemistry; Metallurgy
D Textiles; Paper
E Fixed constructions; Hydraulic engineering;
F Mechanical engineering; Lighting; Heating; Weapons; Blasting
G Physics
H Electricity

Here’s a sample of how the IPC classification works:
Pencils with an automatic lead replacement are categorized according to the IPC as: B 43 K 21/02

Section BPerforming operations; Transporting
Class B43Writing or drawing implements, bureau accessories
Subclass B43KImplements for writing or drawing (containers, casings or accessories for cosmetic substances, e.g. shaving soap, lipstick, make-up, A45D 34/00, A45D 40/00)
Comments: 1. The following terms are used with these meanings in this subclass:
Implements for writing or drawing" includes cover pens, pencils, crayons, chalks or like markers for writing and drawing.
Group B43K 21Propelling pencils (projecting mechanisms for writing B43K 24/00; multiple-point writing implements B43K 27/00)
Subgroup B43K 21/02 (point 1 Subgroup)writing-core feeding mechanisms

Further information about the IPC can be found at the website for the World Intellectual Property Organization.

For comparison, see also
CPC: Cooperative Patent Classification
USPC: US-Patent Classes
FI/F-Term: Japanese FI Classification and F-Terms