Be Like Sherlock in Your Patent Search
You have come up with a brilliant product idea, you’ve drawn and described it, and you’ve searched every nook and cranny for it in the stores and on the Internet. If you discovered that your product is already “in use,” then breathe a sigh of relief and start working on your next brilliant idea! But if you did not find your product on the market, then you have a decision to make: to go to the next exploratory level – the preliminary patent search – or not.
The answer may not be as obvious as you think. Some inventors lose interest in their ideas after they’ve completed the market search; to those among you, cut loose here and see if you can come up with a product idea that really lights your fire. If you’ve got the old idea switch on, “the one” will appear eventually.
For those ready for the next level, prepare for a time-consuming, but enlightening necessary step: the preliminary patent search. But first, let’s put some more flesh on your idea. Go to the place where you do your best creative thinking. I take myself on over to my favorite Starbucks® and sit myself down in a big cozy chair with a hot cup of liquid speed, my lucky Big Red orange pen, and my inventor notebook. Inventors are a ritualistic bunch.
Then draw and describe your object from scratch, reflecting any changes affected by your market research. Write down every function (verb), every possible name for (noun), and every adjective that describes your idea… and synonyms for those words. These will become the key words used for your Preliminary Patent Search.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the government agency responsible for awarding commercial rights to intellectual property, including trade and service marks, and (ta-da!) inventions! For a patent to be awarded, the USPTO must find the invention to be original to the applicant, not made obvious by previous patents, and not already in the public domain (e.g., ways to decorate a Christmas tree).
When I started searching patents in 1993, I had to go to a patent depository at a local public library; fortunately, there was one in my city. (To find the nearest patent depository you can go to PTL Library List.)
The patents were available through an internal data base of the USPTO. The computer search provided basic information about each patent; if you wanted to see the whole patent, you had to look it up in the issue of the Office Gazette of the USPTO where the patent was first published. If the library didn’t have the text in hard copy, you would have to order a microfiche of the entire patent... and wait for a librarian to obtain it for you. Nothing compares to the interminable boredom of doing a patent search this way.
While it may take more time to do a search at the depository, the method is more thorough than searching on the USPTO website, online since 1998. I’m going to assume that you would prefer to do your search online. So you don’t waste too much time trying to figure out which set of directions to follow, I’ll try to direct you to the most useful pages.
But first, here is your mindset: Just like you played detective when you looked for your product on the market, you need your Sherlock now so you can find your patent! If it’s out there, you want to know. The sole purpose of this search is to see if your idea has already been patented by someone else; you are not trying to determine if your idea is patentable.