By Richard Stim, Attorney
Patents are an important form of intellectual property, which allow inventors to obtain exclusive rights over their inventions for a set period of time. In the U.S., patents are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), following an application process. The first step in obtaining a patent for your invention (or determining whether you even qualify for one), however, is to find out whether someone else already has one. If your invention is already patented, then you are out of luck. The quickest and easiest way to determine this is to do an online patent search.
This article summarizes the importance of a patent search and the ways of conducting this search.
For more information, see Getting a Patent on Your Own.
In the United States, if you are the first person to invent a novel product, formula, or device (among other categories), your invention may be patentable. When you obtain a patent, you receive a monopoly over its use, which ordinarily lasts 20 years from the date of your patent application. That monopoly, depending on how you make use of it, may lead to financial rewards.
Before the age of the Internet, a patent search required hiring a lawyer or professional patent searcher at a cost of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The expense discouraged many inventors from performing patent searches.
You can now perform your own patent search online, in your spare time, with relatively minimal effort and cost. Below are the main sources for this task.
Search the texts or claims of patents for free at the USPTO's website. With the USPTO's system, you can:
You can easily and quickly download, view, and print the images of any patent before 1976 at the USPTO's website. Everything is free on the USPTO's website, except for orders of patents to be sent by mail.
Another free patent website is Google Patents, an excellent resource that includes text-searchable U.S patents dating back to the 1790s (the beginning of the U.S. patent system).
This is more than the USPTO offers, since many older USPTO patents are not text-searchable. Many patent searchers find the Google site to be more thorough and easier to use than the USPTO's website.
There are several fee-based patent searching companies:
If you do not have Internet access at home or at work, many public libraries offer free access.
Perhaps searching online is not convenient for you. Or perhaps your idea involves something that is timeless, which means you need to search for old patents, before 1976.
A helpful resource for complete patent searching, from the first patent ever issued to the latest, is a network of special libraries called Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs). These libraries are well-stocked, not only with patent materials, but also with reference librarians who will guide you through the patent search process. Every state has at least one; the USPTO maintains an up-to-date list of contact information for all PTDLs at www.uspto.gov/go/ptdl.
If you are ready to do a patent search and take the other necessary steps to apply for a patent, get Patent It Yourself, by David Pressman (Nolo). This book describes the entire patent process, providing updated information and clear instructions.