How to Find a Patent: Why It Matters

Learning how to find a patent is an important step in securing your intellectual property and involves searching several patent databases.

Thousands of people create new inventions each year. Before you can sell your new product, you need to make sure it's original. This means learning whether a similar invention has already been patented. Trying to sell a product that someone else has already patented could leave you open to a lawsuit.

Patents are publicly available. Generally, patents will be published 18 months after being approved. Certain exceptions apply to this rule. Publicly publishing a patent is the price for having control of your invention.

Searching for a patent can also help you improve your own product. For example, you can make enough changes so that your product is not covered by another person's patent. If you can't find a patent during your search, you can then apply for your own patent. Finding a patent protects you from lawsuits and allows you to protect your own invention.

In the recent past, you would need to hire a lawyer or patent searcher to help you find a patent. This sometimes cost upwards of $500, leading many people to abandon their patent search due to the expense.

First Steps to Finding a Patent

There are several online databases where you can find a patent.

The most useful database is hosted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO database allows you to use a variety of search categories. The USPTO provides separate databases that provide the full text and images for patents and patent applications. These are the Patent Full-Text and Image (PatFT) database and Patent Application Full-Text and Image (AppFT) database.

You could also visit the USPTO library in Arlington, VA or a library in the nationwide network known as the Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs). These libraries provide a wide range of patent content. Their librarians can also assist you with your search.

For information on some of the most recent patents, you should consult the USPTO's Official Gazette. This journal contains information about approved patents, including representative drawings. Gazettes can be browsed by year.

It may also be a good idea to consult either the U.S. Patents and Applications database provided by Westlaw or the U.S. Patent Search/U.S. Patent Assignment Search offered by Bloomberg Law. You will need password access for these search tools.

Another possibility is to use the Google patent database. This database is extremely easy to use. It is also much faster than other databases. However, it does not contain a full list of patents. Newer patents may be difficult to find, and you may not be able to find all the patents for which you are searching. Some of the available Google search categories include:

  • Inventor name
  • Original assignee
  • Current U.S. and international classification

Another excellent search source is Free Patents Online, which has the added advantage of giving you access to the actual PDF documents submitted during the patent process. This can be particularly helpful for obtaining patent illustrations.

You could also consider using one of several patent searching companies. However, these companies usually charge a fee. Some of these companies include PatentMax, Delphion, and PatBase.

Finally, if you're having trouble after your initial search, you might want to consider hiring a patent search professional.

Tips for Using the USPTO Database

Choosing the USPTO allows you to do the following:

  • Search all U.S. patents as far back as 1976
  • Find patent applications going back to March 2001
  • Perform bibliographic searches of patents spanning from 1790 to the present day.

The first step of your search should be to identify the type of patent you need. The USPTO offers three types of patents:

  1. Utility Patents: These are the most common patents. They cover inventions that function in a new way or reach a new result not achieved by similar inventions.
  2. Design Patents: These patents cover alterations to existing objects that don't change their function.
  3. Plant Patents: These cover new types of plants that can be grown through asexual reproduction, such as cuttings or grafts. Genetically modified plants, however, are covered by utility patents.

You will also need to know the purpose of your search. Novelty or state-of-the-art searches are ideal for finding basic information. Infringement or validity searches should be used if you're planning legal action.

The USPTO database is complex and requires using specific search terms and search types.

First, you should be sure to use the advanced search page. This will give you better results. Most people search using the specification field. Specification is what a product is and not what it does. If you were searching for patents for heated gloves, you might type "electric heated gloves" into the specification field. The drawback to this approach is that you can only do text searches on this database dating back to 1976.

A search using the specification field is called a keyword search. Keyword searches are useful if you're a first-time user of the USPTO database. However, professional patent searchers usually will not use a keyword search. This is because finding the right keyword can be difficult and time-consuming.

An obstacle when searching the USPTO database is getting too many results. You search may return hundreds or thousands of patents. This can make it impossible to find what you are looking for. If this happens to you, you will need to refine your search.

It's important to perform multiple searches. Also, use many different search terms. Doing so will give you better results. While searching, make sure to read patents to see if they are actually related to your product. This may not always be the case. You should also keep track of classification numbers. Once you've found the classification number that applies to your invention, you can do a classification search instead of a keyword search.

Searching by classification will usually give you more results. You can also combine a classification search and a specification search to narrow the patents you see. Patents can have multiple classifications. Using the heated glove example, this product could be classified as clothing and an electric device. Read the US classification menu provided by the USPTO to learn more about the classification system.

Search Categories

There is a variety of search categories you can use to find a patent. The most common is the patent application number or patent number. If you know this number, you can use it in any database to find a patent.

It's possible you might not know the patent number. For example, if a product is marked "patent pending," it usually will not have a number. However, there are still a few ways to find these patents. First, you could search by assignee/owner. This is the person who owns the rights to the patent. Second, you could search by the inventor if this is not the same person as the owner.

Using all of these different search categories will help you find more patents that are relevant to your product.

Searching by Inventor Name

Many people choose to search by inventor name. This can be both fun and informative. However, the name search only works for inventions of the last 20 years, after which patents expire. Older inventions require searching by patent number.

The USPTO advanced search engine only understands names when they are entered in the right format. This format is: in/lastname-firstname-$. So, if you are searching for an inventor named Bill Smith, you would type "in/smith-bill-$." The dollar sign is used in case the inventor has a middle name.

Once you've entered the name correctly, you should choose the year(s) you wish to search. You'll get the most results by choosing the first option, "1976 to present." Next, click "search" and you will be taken to a page of patent results. Click on any of the search results and you can view information about the patent, including drawings.

Besides searching by the assignee or inventor listed on a patent, you can also search by invention subject matter. Doing a subject matter search may help you find patent applications or approved patents that are linked to your competitors.

Finding International Patents

If you plan on selling your product across the world, you will need to search for foreign patents. Nearly every country in the world offers patents. You need to be sure to search for patents in any country where your product will be sold.

A good starting point is the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This group provides a PATENTSCOPE patent search tool and a list of the intellectual property agencies in a variety of countries. If you plan to sell your product in Europe, you can search with the European Patent Office (EPO). The European Patent Register provided by the EPO contains publicly available information on European Patents.

In the WIPO Directory of Intellectual Property Offices, you can find an alphabetical list of international intellectual property offices. Some property offices provide internet access to English language patent collections free of charge. You can easily search these databases to find international patents. Here are some of the property offices with searchable databases:

  • Australia: AusPat and IP Australia
  • Canada: Canadian Patents Database and Canadian Intellectual Property Office
  • China: State Intellectual Property Office of the People's Republic of China
  • Denmark: PVS Online Database and Danish Patent and Trademark Office
  • Finland: PatInfo Database and National Board of Patents and Registration of Finland
  • Germany: IPC Search and German Patent and Trademark Office
  • Great Britain: Patent Status Enquiry Service and Intellectual Property Office
  • India: Public Search for Granted and Controller General of Patents Designs
  • Japan: Japan Patent Office
  • Netherlands: NL Agency and Dutch Patent Register
  • Norway: Norwegian Industrial Property Office and Search Service
  • South Korea: Korean Intellectual Property Rights Information Service
  • Sweden: Swedish Patent and Registration Office and Swedish Patent Database
  • Switzerland: Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property and Swissreg
  • Taiwan: Taiwan Intellectual Property Office and Taiwan Patent Search

Finding a Patent Lawyer

If you're performing a patent search in an effort to apply for your own patent, it can be a good idea to hire a patent lawyer. Here are some tips for finding a patent lawyer for your particular needs:

  • Know your requirements. Patent law is very broad. It can include multiple areas of intellectual properties and requires advanced legal knowledge. Understand your exact legal needs before attempting to hire an attorney.
  • Do research. Research is an important part of making any big decision, including hiring an attorney. Check the background of attorneys to be certain they can fulfill your patent needs.
  • Search in the right places. You should be sure you're searching for your attorney through reputable sources. This can include online legal sites and the Bar Association in your area. Never hire an attorney based on word of mouth.
  • Interview candidates. Once you've found a short list of attorneys, you should request interviews. Ask them what kind of experience they have and how they will handle your case. Their answers should help with your hiring decision.

Selling Your Patent

Some people consider selling their patent after it has been approved. If you're interested in selling your patent, you need to find interested buyers. The proper steps for selling your patent include:

  • Decide whether your patent is sellable. Not all patents are commercially viable. The patents that buyers tend to be interested in are those that solve a real-world problem. Consider the possible benefits of your invention to determine if it is worthy of sale.
  • Find out who holds similar patents. Selling a patent is easier when you target a company that produces similar products. This means you need to do a patent search. Using a tool like CobaltIP, you can search a type of product and find out who owns similar patents. This will tell you the companies you should approach about a sale.
  • Search for related patents. It's also a good idea to search for patent holders that own patents that are related to, but not the same as, your patent. If a business is buying patents related to yours, it may be interested in yours as well.
  • Search for similar technology. You also need to see if other patents are using technology similar to your own. This will help you avoid possible infringement lawsuits and will make it easier to sell your patent.

How to Find a Patent FAQ

  • Why do I need to find a patent?

Finding a patent can save you time and money. If you're planning on making a product, you want to make sure someone else hasn't made it first. Patent searches make sure your product is original. It will also let you know if you're likely to receive your own patent approval.

  • What's the best way to find a patent?

The best resource for finding patents is the USPTO online database. You can search for patents using several terms. It's also possible to search for patent applications. The Google patent database can also be a useful search tool.

  • Do I need to search foreign patents?

Yes. You should always search foreign patents, especially if you plan to sell your product overseas. This will help you comply with international patent law.

  • Should I hire an attorney?

Absolutely. Finding a patent can be difficult if you're inexperienced. A knowledgeable patent attorney can help you find similar patents and help you decide if your idea is original. They can also help you apply for a patent if your invention is eligible.

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