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A number of law firms and other companies offer patent search services. An outside search will usually cost at least a couple hundred dollars. For an independent inventor this may seem expensive, especially if the inventor is not sure how serious he or she is about getting a patent. In that situation, an inventor may utilize online patent search websites. A patent search should not be restricted to just patent references because any public disclosure could affect the patentability of an invention. Thorough invention searches should include general search engines, like Google or Yahoo, and maybe even a trip to the library.
The U.S. Patent Office provides online searchable databases of all U.S. patents and published patent applications. Other websites also offer searchable patent databases. For example, Free Patents Online allows users to search U.S. patents, U.S. published applications, and European patents simultaneously. Google Patents also has a popular searchable patent database.
When searching the U.S. Patent Office databases, a novice patent searcher may find more relevant references when following a few of the guidelines below:
1) Patent applications and granted patents have to be searched separately.
Usually after 18 months, a pending patent application will be published whether or not the application has been examined. This is commonly referred to as a patent application publication. If the application is eventually granted as a patent, then the application is re-published as a granted patent. The second publication includes all of the changes made during the examining process. Thus, a patent application publication is not identical to the granted patent publication. Also, a search through the patent applications database will produce results for applications that eventually granted, were abandoned, or are still pending. A search through the granted patents will not cover the pending or denied applications. Thus, a search through both databases is necessary for a thorough search.
The figure below identifies the links to granted patents database and the pending applications database.
2) By law, an inventor is required to provide the patent office all of the references that the inventors believe may affect the patentability of the invention. Also, the examiner will identify references that he or she considers relevant. This information is found on granted patents. Thus, once a relevant patent is identified, the searcher may find similar references by following these citations. The location of the cited references on a granted patent is identified below.
3) In addition to a word search, patent references may be searched by fields. Below are the fields in the granted patent database.
Classification: The patent office categorizes granted patents by technology type. Each class is divided into many subclasses. When the search finds a relevant reference, similar references may be found by searching by class. Both the "Current US Classification" (CCL) or the "International Classification" (ICL) can be used. Both classification numbers may be found on granted patents at the circled location below. Notice that patents are often assigned to more than one class and subclass.
Referenced by: While a granted patent publication includes patent citations, other patents may cite to the granted patent. These incoming citations are not disclosed on the granted publication, just the outgoing citations. However, the patents that cite to the granted patent may be found through the "Referenced By" field.
A popular website that provides a database of searchable patent references for both U.S. and foreign patents is www.delphion.com. Some foreign patent offices also have online databases. Follow the links to search the databases for Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom, or Australia. Most foreign patent applications are also filed in the United States, but not all. Different patent laws for each country add complexity to the global patent community and for inventors looking for international protection.
An internet search and a trip to the library will help find both patent references and non-patent references. Catalogs, advertisements, websites, magazines, scholarly papers, and journals can disclose information that could affect an invention's patentability.
A search should be focused on finding references that either anticipate the invention or suggest that the invention is obvious. Anticipation means that a single reference discloses every important element of the invention. Obviousness means that the combination of two or more references disclose every important element of the invention and that someone of ordinary skill in the relevant technical field would expect that combining those elements would be successful. An inventor should keep in mind that a lot of factors affect patentability. Thus, search results should be shown to a patent attorney or agent before assuming the invention is not patentable.
Often, pending patent applications are not published until 18 months after the application is filed at the U.S. Patent Office. However, these unpublished applications may still affect the patentability of an invention even though the public is unaware of their contents. Thus, even the most thorough patent search will not ensure that all relevant references are found. Despite the uncertainty, inventors have to take the risk and apply for a patent without a sure knowledge that their idea is patentable.
According to U.S. patent law, a patent will not be granted on any idea that was made and sold or offered for sale over one year before the filing date of the application. Likewise, a publication by the inventor one year before filing a patent application will also bar the application from becoming a patent. Notice that these are activities that the inventor does that would disqualify himself from obtaining a patent.
This website strongly advises that search results be reviewed by a qualified patent attorney or patent agent before filing a patent application. An inventor is allowed to represent himself before the patent office and may file the application without the help of a patent professional. However, many factors affect patentability, and an inexperienced patent drafter may overlook issues that a professional would not.
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