How to Conduct a Patent Search the Right Way

Coming up with an incredible idea is only the first step in innovation. The next step is research and plenty of it. The only problem is that every step in the product development process, including fact finding, can be hampered by resource constraints. The light bulb of ideas is burning brightly but is your idea truly original? And will you be able to protect it if it is?

You may be responsible for conducting your own patent search before you can count on the support of a team, your search may need to be complete in a limited span of time or there may simply be no room in your budget for a patent attorney. Whatever your reasons for conducting your own patent search, it makes sense to complete this crucial step right the first time to avoid issues later on. Here is what you need to know:

Patent Basics

Patenting an invention doesn’t give the patent holder the right to use or sell their invention, but rather to keep others from producing, selling, using or importing the patented invention for a set span of time in return for making the details of said invention public. Other entities are free to try to profit from a patented invention but the patent is what gives the patent holder the right to take legal action against those people or corporations.

Being able to protect intellectual rights helps product developers navigate the waters of product development without fear that time and money will be wasted because someone else took the idea and put it in production more quickly. But on top of that, patents also give developers and companies with integrity a way to find areas of innovation that have already been fleshed out.


The Seven-Step Patent Search Process

You can do a free patent search but it’s not as straightforward as a simple keyword search. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has patents on file going back to the late 1700s, terminology used in patents changes fairly rapidly and the US patent database is massive. That’s why the USPTO has created a seven-step process:

  1. Brainstorm keywords that describe your invention – think about all possible ways to describe the idea.
  2. Run the keywords through the USPTO website’s Site Search box by searching for “CPC Scheme [keywords(s)]” to find initial class/subclass combinations in the Index to the U.S. Patent Classification System.
  3. Verify the relevancy of CPC classifications you found by reviewing the CPC Classification Definition in the Classification Schedule.
  4. Find the patent documents with the CPC classification you’ve selected in the PatFT (Patents Full-Text and Image) database. Read the abstracts to find those that are most relevant.
  5. Review each patent using their front page information to find those most similar to your own invention. References cited by the applicant or examiner may help you find other relevant patents.
  6. Retrieve the published patent applications with the CPC classification you selected in step 3 from the AppFT (Applications Full-Text and Image) database. Review these more thoroughly, paying special attention to drawings.
  7. Broaden your search to include other keywords, results from the European Patent Office’s Worldwide Espacenet patent database and non-patent literature.

Google offers Google Patent Search, which is faster than the USPTO’s database, so you may be tempted to cut corners but keep in mind that the results it delivers are inferior.

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Mistakes to Avoid  

One common patent search mistake inventors make is failing to designate a patent type – utility, design or plant – before searching. But the most common mistake to avoid is not being thorough enough when brainstorming keywords. To find the best search terms, consider the following questions:

  • What does your invention do or achieve?
  • What is your invention made of?
  • What is your invention used for?

Remember to check a thesaurus and technical dictionary for additional terminology related to your invention.

Remember that although free patent search tools are available to anyone, even a preliminary search can be daunting. If you’re confused or feel like you’ve missed anything, consult a patent lawyer. But if you feel confident that your invention is truly new, you’re ready to begin a provisional patent application.

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Jarrod Barker
About the Author
Jarrod Barker
Jarrod has a keen interest in technology development and operations. He has an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering and his industry experience spans product design, sports technology, medical device engineering and power generation. He has worked for a leading design consultancy in Cambridge, UK and now runs the Outerspace branch in San Diego USA.

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