What Is a Patent Application Search?

A patent application search is a step in the process of applying for a patent. To do this, you must search the database of existing patents to make sure your idea qualifies for patent protection.  If your invention has already been patented, you won't receive a patent so there is no point in wasting time and money to apply.

The first step to apply for a patent is to make sure that someone else hasn't already secured protection on the same idea. The patent process can cost more than $10,000. While a patent application search isn't a necessary step, it is highly recommended. When you conduct a thorough search, you can highlight any differences between prior art that you found when submitting your application. You could also save a lot of time and money that would be wasted if you apply for a patent on something that is already listed in the patent database.  

A U.S.-issued patent gives the holder a monopoly on the idea that lasts for 20 years from the date of the patent application. The actual length of the patent is typically closer to 17-18 years since the patent process can take so long. In the past, performing a patent application search required the inventor to hire a professional searcher or lawyer. This service typically came with a minimum fee of $500. The cost and time involved discouraged inventors from searching patents before applying. However, free online resources make it easier than ever to search for patents.  

You can search the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website to find information on granted patents. The site includes U.S. patents dating back to 1976, as well as published patent applications dating back to March 2001. The USPTO system also allows you to conduct bibliographic searches of patents from as far back as 1790. Start by navigating to the home page and clicking on either "patents" or "trademarks." You will then go to a table of contents page that includes all available resources. The "search patents" portion will be the most useful in a patent application search. Clicking on that link will take you to a menu of different types of searches.

This website also includes a help section on using the tools and resources available through the USPTO database. However, provisional patents and pending patents do not show up in the database. A provisional patent doesn't grant the holder any type of protection.

You can also use the Google Patent search function to find information about patents. That site is free to all users, and many find it easier to navigate than the USPTO system. It doesn't have as much information as other patent databases, so you might not find existing patents when performing a broad search. Another free option is Free Patents Online.

There are several online patent searching companies that charge a fee for their services, such as:

  • PatentMax
  • Delphion
  • PatBase
  • Thomson-Reuters Patent Web

If you don't have internet access or the patent you are searching for was granted prior to 1976, you can also use the Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries. This network includes special libraries that house a variety of patent materials. The libraries are staffed with knowledgeable reference librarians who can help with patent searches and answer questions. Every state in the U.S. has at least one library within the network.

You can perform a patent application search through several methods:

  • Known patent number (if you have it)
  • Name of the patent owner or assignee
  • Information on the inventor
  • Subject matter of the invention

One of the most useful ways to search for a patent is with the patent number. Simply type the patent number into the search box and you will get access to a data sheet. This sheet includes bibliographic data, such as the name of the inventor(s), who owns the patent, and the filing date, as well as an abstract about the invention. You can also navigate to a full copy of the patent, which includes drawings, by clicking "images" at the top of the page. In order to view the files, you must have a browser plug-in to view and print full patent images in tag image file format (TIFF). In the past, patent searchers had to order and pay for copies of patents and images. The accessibility to these items makes it easier than ever to perform your own patent application search.

If you don't have the patent number, the "advanced search" function is helpful. You can search by inventor name, patent ownership, title, issue date, attorney name, and application serial number. You can still perform an extensive search if you don't have any of this information by using the classification system. All patents are classified by subject matter so you can perform a search that relates to the subject or use of your idea. When you're on the USPTO website, click on "tools to help in searching by patent classification" to find all current classifications and sub-classifications.

When using the keyword field search function on the USPTO website, you can limit the search to specific fields for which you have information. Simply input as much information as you have, leaving the other boxes blank, and perform an advanced search.

You can also use the USPTO website's search function to find trademarks. Applications for trademarks are immediately available to the public, making it easier to find information and check the status of all filings.

Some patents are continuations but you still need to include these in your search. There are several types of continuing patent applications:

  • Continuation: If an applicant wants to pursue claims made on a previous application, he or she will file a continuation. This filing claims priority of the original application, also referred to as the parent application. It will also name at least one of the inventors. Continuations are beneficial if the original application didn't include all useful information about the invention. For example, if you invented a device that helped relieve pain and pressure from psoriatic arthritis, you might file a continuation to claim that the invention also treats symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Continuation-in-Part: If an applicant needs to include additional subject matter on the original application, he or she would use a continuation-in-part. The continuation-in-part claims priority to the original application but allows the option to claim enhancements made after the inventor filed.
  • Divisional: When an application includes more than one invention, it will be split into divisional applications for each additional invention. The divisional applications claim priority to the parent application.

Many people choose to hire patent attorneys to help with the application search. Searching on the USPTO site and other online resources is a good first step, but these searches often won't produce definitive answers on the patentability of an idea. Attorneys have access to information that the general public often won't see, making it easier to find applications filed for specific ideas and products.

Why Is a Patent Application Search Important?

When you submit a nonprovisional patent application to the USPTO, your assigned reviewer will begin by searching the database of patents. The search will include a review of any prior art. Reviewers will only grant patents to new and novel ideas.

If you don't conduct a thorough patent application search, you could end up wasting a lot of time and money. It takes time to develop an idea, make a prototype, test the product, and release it to the public. It also requires an investment to file a patent application. You'll have to wait for months or even years to receive approval or denial of your application. All of these steps add to the process, which is why obtaining a patent often takes so long. Performing a thorough patent application search is crucial to avoid wasting your resources. If you find something during your search, you can either adjust your idea to make sure it's unique enough to qualify for patent protection, or abandon the idea of applying for a patent.

Reasons to Consider Not Using a Patent Application Search

The only reason you might not perform a patent application search is if you're hiring a patent attorney or other professional searching agent to handle the process on your behalf. Otherwise, you should always conduct a thorough search.

Reasons to Consider Using a Patent Application Search

Every inventor must perform a patent application search before applying for a patent. The USPTO will not issue a patent on something that is too similar to a product, design, or plant that already has a patent.

Using advanced search features and keywords can help narrow down the results and make it easier to find patents that are similar to your idea. A broad search could produce thousands of results, and that list likely will only include patents issued since 1976. You could end up spending hours filtering through results that don't really apply to or compete with your idea.

Another challenge that can come up when performing a patent application search is what keywords to use. If you leave out an important part of the word or phrase or search under a name that is different from what someone else might have filed, you probably won't find patents that could compete with yours. Use a variety of keywords and look at many different options when performing a patent application search.

Deadline

The deadline to file a patent application is 12 months from the date you show your product or idea in a public setting. Therefore, if you keep your idea private, there is no set deadline for performing a patent search or filing the application. It is important to remember that the USPTO grants patents based on filing dates. If someone takes your idea and files a patent application, you could lose the opportunity to file at all and be in violation of the terms of that person's patent protection.

If you file a provisional patent application, you have 12 months from the filing date to file a nonprovisional patent application. Should you fail to do so, your provisional patent will expire. It is best to start your patent application search before you invest too much time or money in the process.

What Could Happen When You Use a Patent Application Search?

Patent application searches can prevent you from wasting time and money. When performing a patent application search, it could take quite a while to find the information you need. If you find any patents that could compete with your idea, review them carefully to look for similarities. When the ideas are too similar, the USPTO will not grant you a patent. You can also use the class of the patents you find to search for other options that could be similar to your idea.

What Could Happen When You Don't Use a Patent Application Search?

If you don't conduct a thorough patent application search, you could file for a patent on something that is already protected. You also run the risk of producing a product or idea that infringes on someone else's patent, which could put you in legal jeopardy as well.

There is also a difference between searching for patentability versus searching for patent clearance or non-infringement. When you search for patent clearance or non-infringement, you are typically looking to see if commercializing your idea would infringe on another patent. Searching for patentability focuses more on the ability to qualify for patent protection, not whether your idea infringes on a patent.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I perform my own patent application search?

Inventors can perform their own patent application searches online or through the network of patent libraries. Some websites don't have as much information, so a searcher might not find the information they need. Hiring a professional to search the database can reduce stress and make it easier to find any existing patents.

  • What if I don't find any other patents during my patent application search?

If you don't find any existing patents during your search, try searching with other keywords and within other classifications. When you exhaust all search options, you can apply for a patent feeling confident that your idea should qualify.

  • My idea is not currently on the market. Do I still need to perform a patent application search?

Yes. An idea can still be patent-protected, even if the patent holder is not currently producing or manufacturing the product.

  • Is my patent guaranteed if I perform a patent application search and don't find any other patents?

No. Even if you perform a thorough search and don't find any existing patents, there could still be prior art that is not public but is similar to your idea. A U.S. patent application typically stays out of the public eye for 18 months after the application filing date. Some patent applications are still not publicly available until they are issued as approved patents. Even the most thorough patent search might not produce every possible result.

The purpose of keeping some applications secret is to respect the desires of the applicants to prevent copying during the initial stage when the patent is still pending. It could also apply to those under government secrecy orders. Although a patent search may not show you a potential conflict that is not publicly available, it is still well worth the time to conduct a thorough search before submitting an application.

Newly enacted patent law legislation requires publication of certain patent applications, which means searchers might be able to see some patents that are still in pending status. If you're trying to keep tabs on your competitors, this new legislation can be extremely helpful.

Steps to File

Upon completion of your patent application search, you can begin the process of applying for patent protection. In order to apply, you must fill out the proper application form, based on which type of patent you're seeking to obtain: utility, design, or plant. You will file that application, along with all required drawings and the filing fee, with the USPTO.

If you need help with a patent application search, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.