When people create inventions, they often apply for patent protection. Patents protect inventions by providing patent owners with exclusive rights to make, use and sell their invention (i.e. the exclusive right to profit from their invention). An invention must be new, useful, and innovative to be patented.
If you have an idea for an invention, you should consider conducting a patent search to make sure someone else has not already invented your idea. An easy way to do this is by hiring a lawyer.
What is a patent search?
A patent search involves a search for prior art such as journal articles, published patents, blog posts and other public documents. Conducting a patent search is important because it allows you to determine whether your invention is new, useful, and innovative and therefore, whether it can be patented. During your search, if you find a prior art document that describes your idea, then your idea is not new and has already been invented. This also means that you won’t be able to obtain a patent to protect your idea; however, if no prior art describing your invention is found, then your idea likely has not already been invented.
How is a patent search conducted?
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) sets out criteria to find relevant patents such as keywords, patent classification and names of applicants or inventors.
Performing a search using keywords can target existing patents that are similar to your invention idea. When performing a keyword search, WIPO recommends using Boolean operators, truncation, nesting, and phrases.
Boolean operators such as “AND” and “OR” can combine keywords to narrow your search. For example, if your invention involves a 3D printer, you can search ‘3D “AND” printer’ and all documents containing the words “3D” and “printer” will appear.
Truncation involves shortening words to their primary stem. If we continue with the 3D printer example, in your search you can truncate the word “printer” to print*. As a result, your search results will be broader and show documents containing words stemming from “print” such as “printer” and “printing”.
Nesting involves using parentheses to organize searches. For example, instead of searching ‘printer “AND” 3D “OR” medical’, you can search ‘printer “AND” (3D or medical)’ to find documents that contain the word “printer” and either the word “3D” or “medical”.
Another helpful option for performing a keyword search is to use quotation marks. For example, if you search the phrase ‘3D printer’ without quotation marks, the search will result in all documents that have the words “3D” and “printer”. However, if you search “3D printer” then only documents containing the phrase “3D printer” will appear.
When conducting a patent search, WIPO recommends being attentive to synonyms and multiple languages. There are often a variety of terms that can be used to describe technologies so it’s important to search for synonyms as well. For example, a cell phone can also be described as a mobile phone, so you should search for both and all other relevant terms. Languages of patent documents are also important because not all patent documents are written in English. If you search using words from the English language, you will not retrieve search results for patent documents written in other languages that might be relevant to your invention.
Patent classification search
Classification systems organize patent documents into different technology groups. Searching by patent classification can provide a more specific and narrow search rather than a simple keyword search. An example of a classification system is the International Patent Classification (IPC) system. This system covers almost all fields of technology and classifies technology into almost 70 000 groups.
Applicant or inventor name search
You can also search for patents belonging to specific individuals or companies by searching their names.
Tips for conducting a patent search
The United States Patent and Trademark Office suggests brainstorming different terms and synonyms that describe your invention to help you determine keywords for your search. The University of Toronto says, in order to conduct an effective search, you need to understand how your invention works—not just how it will be used. It also suggests considering the invention’s purpose, result, material, and use. Another useful tip is to keep a list of the relevant and non-relevant patents you come across during your search to save time by ensuring you won’t check the same document twice.
Here is a list of resources for your search:
- Google Search;
- PATENTSCOPE – managed by WIPO;
- Google Patents;
- United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO);
- Canadian Patents Database – managed by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office; and
- Espacenet – managed by the European Patent Office (EPO)
Keep in mind, although you can conduct a patent search yourself, it is highly beneficial and recommended to hire a lawyer to conduct your search.