How do you determine whether your idea is new? Free online patent tools are useful

When a person is struck with – and wants to commercialise –  a new idea, its constructive for them to first conduct an internet search to see if anyone else has made or done something similar. After all, any discussion of whether there is commercial value in protecting an invention requires some assessment of whether the invention is new enough to be protectable.

Patents contain information you won’t find elsewhere

It might surprise you to learn that very little of the information which is relied on by Patent Offices when they examine patent applications comes from an internet search.  Instead, in some areas, over 90% of the material comes from patent publications.

The main reasons why are – 1) patents often contain more detail about a product than might be placed on a website and 2) many patents describe ideas that never went anywhere.  As a result, searching in patents can give you a totally different perspective on what is out there.

For example, a technology that hasn’t gone anywhere (yet) is vacuum tube transportation. Discussion of vacuum tube transportation has recently been reinvigorated by Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project but the concept itself has been around for over a century.

So it’s not surprising that if you put the search “evacuated tube transport” into Google you’ll get a first page where Hyperloop features. However, put the same search into Google patents and you’ll find a host of patents but none owned by Hyperloop on the first page (although there are some only a few clicks away).  Digging deeper from both starting points should give you a richer understanding of the technology.

What else is online patent searching good for?

One of the things you can do is research what technologies a competitor is putting energy into. Put the search: inassignee:”Hyperloop Technologies, Inc.” into Google patents and you can see that Hyperloop have been looking at things like electric motor construction, braking systems, and tube construction.

Patent searching can also identify risks to your business. If you are thinking of disrupting a market dominated by major players, it’s worth seeing if any of them have a patent position. Particularly given that more and more major players are trying to anticipate how their market might be disrupted and get in before disruptors.

What are the limitations?

The most important limitation is that you shouldn’t draw your own conclusions as to what you can or can’t do based on your own patent search.  You really need to know how to find out if a patent is in force, what part of the patent specification to look at, and how to interpret it to make this call: something best left to the experts.

You also need to know that patents aren’t published until 18 months after the first patent application filing for the invention.  As a result they are always slightly out of date which is frustrating in a world that moves much faster than when the patent system was conceived.  Further, the collections of patents in free databases are sometimes incomplete and not as complete as in commercial databases that patent attorneys and patent offices have access too.

So where should I search?

Google patents is useful as it allows natural language searching.  It’s great for quickly trying to find out whether someone has thought of the exact same idea. There is also an advanced search option for Google patents that you can use to narrow the search which will feel familiar to people who’ve used their other advanced search options.

If you’re interested in advanced search options, I also suggest Espacenet’s advanced search:  Espacenet is provided by the European Patent Office and has a larger collection of documents than Google patents. It allows you to enter Boolean search terms (AND/OR etc), group terms using brackets, and use wild cards, all of which are tools available  in commercial databases that patent attorneys use.  There is also a classification search function that can help you identify patent classifications which relate to your technology. Patent classifications are helpful for excluding patents from unrelated fields that have been captured by your key words.

Others recommend and .  A lot of US attorneys recommend the US Patent Office search engine but the database only covers US cases and is not easy for beginners to use because you have to search granted patents and publications of patent applications separately.

About the author

Nick Mountford is Principal at Griffith Hack, an intellectual property law firm with offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane.