How to Search for Patents

How to search for patents is best done by going to the official site of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This site has two separate search engines for patents and trademarks.

Why Is a Patent Search Important?

The reason someone might do a patent search is to avoid filing a patent that already exists. Two laws, 35 U.S. C. 102 and 35 U.S.C. 103, state that a person cannot get a patent on an existing innovation.

A person who tries anyway will wait at least a year for his or her patent application, only to have it rejected. The patent application process is known for being slow. It also includes application fees that can cost between $6,000 and $20,000. A patent application takes a long time and costs a lot of money.

A search saves the applicant a great deal of time and money if he or she finds out the patent already exists. That's why the smart strategy is to do searches for patents already on record that are similar in scope to the inventor's innovation. A search of pending patents is also important. These patents will have less paperwork available. Still, the researcher will know whether an innovation is original.

How Can Someone Do a Patent Search?

The USPTO has made this process as easy as possible. A person can perform a patent search at one of the five offices across the country. For most people, the easier method is to search online.

Several libraries around the country have microfiche copies of patents, too. A person can look at the patent's physical record to see the details. Still, the best and most thorough patent searches are the ones performed at the main USPTO office in Arlington, Virginia.

Other sites offer patent searches that are even more convenient to many users. For example, Google offers an advanced patent search feature on its site. It looks like the Google search page. This makes it user-friendly for most patent applicants.

Another popular patent search site is the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This patent search engine tells the applicant whether an innovation already has a patent somewhere else in the world. It has 64 million patent documents available to read online.

Free Patents Online has a search engine. It also offers content related to intellectual property and patent filings. People in the business of patents should check this site's two sections weekly. Both the IP News and Weekly IP Synopsis sections discuss trends in the patent industry.

Another useful patent search engine is PatBase. This website's database includes patents dating back to the 1800s. It also allows batch mail downloads. PatBase isn't free, but it does offer a free trial. A person only looking to research a few patents can take advantage of this free trial.

A researcher should also take advantage of in-person searches. The USPTO has set up a series of libraries known as Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs). These locations have comprehensive patent information.

More importantly, the reference librarians at these facilities have special training. They can help a researcher find applicable patent information.

Every state has a PTDL and many have more than one. The official USPTO website has a list of PTDLs.

The inventor should study all existing patents that are similar to the new innovation. He or she might discover that while a similar idea has a patent, the new innovation is different enough to get a patent, too. Alternately, the inventor can try to get a design patent if someone already owns a utility patent. Design patents have value, too, just not as much as utility patents.

The problem with all online searches is a lack of timeliness. A researcher can only view published patent applications online. Patent agencies usually need 18 months or more to publish such documents. So, an applicant is looking at data that's more than a year old.

This isn't accidental. Many patent applicants want to protect the competitive advantage of their innovation for as long as possible. The USPTO also prevents people from searching for provisional patents for this reason.

When searching for a patent, an innovator must use some creativity. An item that has no known comparison still might share similarities with an existing patent. A person should check all elements of a patentable idea. Then, he or she should do a patent search for each one. A proper patent search should involve hours of research.

What Are Common Types of Patent Searches?

  • Inventors trying to see whether their idea has an existing patent or patent application
  • A person researching any innovation patented before 1976
  • A researcher trying to use a patent number to find the documentation for the patent claim
  • A person investigating a patent or group of patents owned by an individual or a business
  • A person researching recent international patent claims

Are There Other Concerns About Patent Searches?

As mentioned, the patent application process is slow. An inventor should understand that someone with a similar innovation might not have a patent. This person could have an application that will earn a patent before the inventor, though. It's a first come, first served system.

To avoid spending time and money on an application only to lose out by a few months, a person should also do a patent application search. The USPTO has a search engine for these, as well. An inventor should do this search as soon as the original patent search shows no existing patents.

Another concern is that Google doesn't update as quickly as the USPTO. Anyone who uses this service should understand that recent patents might not show in the display results. A person can and should use Google, but must understand that it's not as reliable as the USPTO.

Google does have an important advantage over the USPTO, though. Google's results are comprehensive, showing everything since U.S. Patent No. 1. The USPTO doesn't have all its patents available for online search. That's why you must do a search on both USPTO and Google.

An inventor should also understand that patent searches are complex. Someone without experience doing them risks searching for the wrong thing. Each patent search has a Classification section. A user who checks the wrong box will get incorrect results.

Hiring a professional patent searcher is a safe way to verify results about current patents and outstanding patent applications. Many searchers are easily affordable. However, the most expensive search specialists have received licenses to practice from the USPTO.

What's Available on the USPTO Search Engine?

As the hub of all patent searches, the USPTO Search Engine has plenty of features. A researcher can:

  • Search through a list of American patents dating back to 1976
  • Search through every American patent application since the first publication date in March of 2001
  • Search by name
  • Search by patent number from 1790 until today
  • Search by title of invention

The best part of the USPTO's official site is its depth of information. You can view the images from any patent. These illustrations should clarify whether your innovation is new.

How Do Plant Patent Searches Work?

Plant patents are the most specialized type of patent. The USPTO only awards these to people who can create a previously unknown plant asexually. The plant cannot already exist in an uncultivated state. Tuber propagated plants are also ineligible.

A person doesn't need to invent the plant. Discoveries also qualify for patents, as long as the patent applicant can reproduce the plant asexually. That's the key element in a plant patent claim.

Anyone who gains the patent has control of the plant for 20 years. The patent owner decides who can reproduce the plant. This makes the patent extremely powerful. These patents are also rare. From 2009 through 2015, an average of less than 1,000 applications earned plant patents each year.

A potential plant patent applicant should do a search on the USPTO website. A person who knows the number of the current plant patent can search directly with that information. A granted plant patent is easy to find in the search results. These patents always start with PP.

The best way to search for a plant patent is by PLT class. The USPTO classifies these patents in a specific order. The first and main listing is by type, such as daisies and roses.

The next category is descriptive. Any element that makes the plant unique could get a mention in this field. Examples include dwarf shrubs or a distinctive type of thorn.

Additional categorization is possible beyond these two levels. These searches are only useful for plant patent investigators who know what they're trying to find, though.

Rather than searching for existing patents on your own, the best idea is to hire an attorney. If you need helping searching for a patent, post your legal need on the UpCounsel marketplace. A well-qualified patent expert can make sure your idea for a patent is available.