Be Like Sherlock in Your Patent Search

So switch hats to the ace detective again, determined to find your invention in the patent data base. If you play along with the detective scenario, you might even have some fun with this task!

Go to the USPTO website and follow some of the links that describe the responsibilities of the agency; become familiar with the different areas of “intellectual property,” such as copyright and trademark. Then go to the patent search area Patent Database , and click the icon for “Quick Search,” under “Issued Patents.” Then click the “Help” link next to the word “Query.” That will take you to the instructions for doing a quick search Help on the Quick Search . I don’t recommend you try anything more complicated at this time.

You will use two key words at a time from your invention notebook to do the search, a noun and a verb -- what is it called and what does it do? You should take the shortcut of searching key words in patent abstracts only, rather than entire patent documents; this will save you several hours of combing though patents that are totally unrelated to your idea. Search two key words at a time, a noun and a verb, and when the results come up, review the abstracts, claims, and drawings of each patent the search finds. Then, rotate in one new key word and do another search, following the same process again and again until you’ve gone through all of your key words in different combinations. Some of the patents you see will not be related to your invention; others may be peripherally or directly related.

In your inventor notebook, record the numbers of every patent related to your idea as well as a brief description of the patent. Download and save each of those patents on your hard drive and a back-up disk. I tend to go overboard and also make a hard copy. If you decide you want to pursue development of your idea, you will need these documents later in the process.

My dear Sherlock, you are not finished yet. Because it is your nature to be thorough, you will conduct another “Quick Search” on the patent applications that have been published. Go back to the patent index page Patent Database and this time run your key word search on the “Published Applications” (on the right hand side of the page).

Have you yet resorted to Googling “patent search services?” Here’s my take on having the preliminary search conducted by “pros:” attorneys and licensed patent searchers set their prices based on a limited number of search hours, not on thoroughness. Do the preliminary search yourself. You know your invention best, you will use all of your descriptive terms (key words) to search the patents, and you will put in the time it takes to do it thoroughly.

There is one free search site you should keep your eye on -- Patent Genius -- because eventually you may be able to do your whole preliminary search on this site. Only two months online, the site’s ingenious developer, Patrick Lamb, has built a very simple search system for people who know what they are looking for. You can search patents by category, inventor, and patent number, but for the depth of search you need, don’t skip your trip to the USPTO database. Mr. Lamb says he and his team are adding new content every day, so I’ll keep you posted on developments.

Now Sherlock, how are you doing? Did you finish the preliminary search? If you found that your idea has already been patented, take yourself out to dinner or a movie, because that was hard work!

If you did not find your patent, that is a good sign ... but not conclusive. Remember there were more than three million patents issued before 1976, and then there are patents pending, overseas patents, etcetera. So, hang on to the related patents you found, take a puff on your pipe, and go back to the drawing board, where I’ll meet you next time.

SEE NEXT: To Market, To Market - How Do Inventors Go To Market?

Myra Per-Lee
Myra's Invention Blog

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Nov 22, 2006
by Myra Per-Lee

Author's Response

First, thank you Mr. Brown for pointing out my error: copyrights are under the auspices of the Copyright Office not the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I will correct that in the article.

Relevant to the additional comments made by Mr. Brown, most readers recognize that my columns are written for new inventors. The information I provide about the process of invention is not laden with terms of art, but of general usage and understanding, so as not to overwhelm the reader with technicalities that are not meaningful at a particular time.

Additionally, each column is one of a series, and in this case, I chose to end this column at round one of the preliminary patent search. Mr. Brown points out that there is more to the preliminary search.... Yes, there is; that's why I write that the information they have obtained "is not conclusive." However, as my readers will see, in my next column, I'm going to suggest a somewhat different path.

Myra Per-Lee
Featured Blogger

Dec 6, 2006
by Anonymous (not verified)

Old out-dated patents are now fair game!

Previous out-dated patents can be used in creating a unique combination for a new an patentable invention! Even already (less than 17 year) patents can be used if they have been licensed. Such as a licensed patented paint can be used in conjunction with your new car type of invention without infringing the patent on the new type of paint.

Apr 25, 2007
by Bill (not verified)

Without elaborating too

Without elaborating too much, just a few comments,

 First, searching at a depository is not at all more thorough than searching on the USPTO's website - if anything it is simply less efficient.  Searching using the search methods typically used at depositories are simply much more thorough than searching for two "keywords" within patent abstracts.

 Searching within abstracts will limit irrelevant results, but in many cases will still give you a lot of irrelevant results while failing to locate many relevant results.  Even if you search multiple combinations of keywords, you will still pull up more irrelevant results while failing to locate relevant ones - there are likely to be many patents on related subject matter that are irrelevant to you, and additionally, patents often use different language to describe things than would commonly be used.  Plus, there will also be occasions when a patent is extremely relevant but that would not be indicated by the abstract.

 This is not to say you can't or necessarily shouldn't attempt to search patents on your own.  "Have you yet resorted to Googling “patent search services?” Here’s my take on having the preliminary search conducted by “pros:” attorneys and licensed patent searchers set their prices based on a limited number of search hours, not on thoroughness. Do the preliminary search yourself. You know your invention best, you will use all of your descriptive terms (key words) to search the patents, and you will put in the time it takes to do it thoroughly" --- That is correct in that many searchers name their price on a limited number of search hours (although, to note, there is no such thing as a "licensed patent searcher" - the closest thing to that is a former USPTO examiner - but many former examiners worked for the USPTO before modern technology changed ideal search procedures.  Additionally the USPTO has no standard patent search methodology, and searches conducted by examiners are not always all that great - the USPTO is meant to function efficiently and "sufficiently" not necessarily beyond "sufficiently."  Further,  many attorneys offering patent searches do not conduct their own searches - being an attorney makes you more qualified to look at relevant patents in detail and provide an opinion of patentability - but does relatively little to make you a better patent searcher.  Many lower priced firms like to advertise cheap searches with a patentability opinion included - but the opinion is only based on the results of the search and hence is only as good as the search on some level.  Based on the liability at hand when drafting a meaningful patentability opinion, any cheap search that comes with an opinion should raise a red flag in my opinion.  Although, most firms will work more efficiently than using simple keyword searches, and many search firms might have a better idea of which words to search for because even if you have a better knowledge of your invention, they have a better knowledge of "patent speak" in addition to tools which can effortlessly make their boolean searches a little bit more efficient)

 Sorry to go off on that tangent...but the point I was getting at was, if you do plan to do it yourself and you are willing to invest a good amount of time in to searching patents, as with anything else, at least do it as right as you can.  In this case, at the least, it means learning a little bit about the patent classification system, as well as learning a little about the boolean search options available to you at the USPTO's site or at any site you choose to use instead.  But, I would agree that doing it yourself will generally be a much better value than using a cheap, lower quality search service.  And even in other cases it just might make sense for you.

 My experience, its not uncommon to come across inventors who claim they've done their research and may be convinced that nothing similar exists.  Unfortunately, in those cases, it doesn't always take more than 10 minutes to show them otherwise.