Patent searches are crucial to the process of turning an invention into a product. A few minutes spent looking at inventions in the same field as yours can help in three main ways:
- First is simply to see what’s already been invented in your field. This can show you straight off, whether it’s even worth pursuing your invention, since if someone else has already done it or something very similar, you can’t.
- Secondly, reading existing patents often inspires insights which will help you develop something novel, whether those innovations come about through noting a disadvantage of an existing invention, or from a conscious effort to ‘design around’ it.
- Thirdly, understanding the state of the art in a field makes you familiar with potential competitors, and technical issues which may affect your invention. A patent’s ‘Description’ section often starts with a review of prior art and existing inventions in the field, and the merits of these — reading such descriptions can be a quick way to learn a lot more about the field.
Starting PointThe European Patent Office website, is the easiest starting point for patent searches. Despite the name, patents from the world over (including the US) are included, and the search interface is probably the friendliest for new users. Looking at the homepage, there are four search methods in the left-hand column: Quick Search, Advanced Search, Number Search and Classification Search.
The Classification SystemUsing the Classification Search is covered in the article ‘The Patent Classification System’, but aside from this, it is probably the Quick Search and Advanced Search which are the best introduction to patent searches for the novice user. Both of these methods allow the user to search for specific terms in the title or the abstract (a summary description) of the patent, or the name of the inventor or the organisation to which the patent was assigned, but while the Quick Search only permits one at a time (either a term in the title or abstract, or a name), the Advanced Search allows both (or more) at the same time, along with other characteristics such as publication date and the use of AND/OR (Boolean operators). Because of this flexibility, inventors quickly move on from the Quick Search: its fine if you only want to see all patents with, say, ‘wheelchair’ in the title or abstract, but as soon as you need more specific search methods, the Advanced Search becomes vital.
So, for example, if you know that someone called H. Rearden has invented a metal alloying process, you might go to Advanced Search and type ‘metal OR alloy OR alloying’ in the ‘Keywords in title or abstract’ field, and ‘Rearden’ in the Inventor field.
Understand the SystemOther methods of searching are explained well in the ‘Quick Help’ panel on the website: for example, if you know part of the inventor’s name, or want to search variants of a particular word, you can use ‘wildcards’. The major deficiency in the system from an inventor’s point of view is the lack of a date range search.
Once you have results, you can view the different sections of the patent or choose to download the whole document as a PDF, which makes printing easier. You can build up a research folder of relevant patents, which will be an excellent technical resource as well as vastly widening your comprehension of the field of your invention. It’s easy to spend hours reading and thinking about patents and trying out related searches once you understand the system, and very much worthwhile for any aspiring inventor.