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Start Your Business Startup Basics

How to Search for a Patent

How to Search for a Patent If you think you have an invention that's the best thing since sliced bread, do some research to make sure no one else has had the same idea. / Credit: Seregam | Shutterstock

Performing a patent search, while inexpensive and simple to do, is still rather complex in its own regard. The main difficulty behind searching through patents both locally and internationally is selecting keywords. You can easily miss the types of inventions you’re searching for by choosing a wrong keyword or even searching in the wrong class or sub-class of inventions.

Searching through patent databases can be done free of charge. The resources that provide this search functionality are constantly changing and updating with the newest patents. While many different search resources exist, three are among the more popular of options:

Each of these patent search resources are an excellent first step in finding patents similar to the inventions you may have. You may find many patents similar in design and purpose, and in some cases, even identical to your own invention. Researching such patents is critically important to coming up with something truly unique. If you find patents similar in design to your own invention, you may want to work with a local patent attorney and share with them the results of your findings. They may find your invention is not patentable because of the similarity of other patents.

Preliminary keyword research

Prior to beginning your patent search, you should first spend time brainstorming keywords. Due to the complexities of patents and the many diverse inventions that exist, you’ll want to ensure you cover every possible way of classifying your invention. Otherwise, once you’ve put in the time and money of creating a patent application, it will be denied due to pre-existing patents or “previous art” that may exist.

When you brainstorm keywords, you’ll want to come up with terms relating not only to what your invention is, but also its purpose, use and composition.

How to search for patents

To perform a patent search, simply navigate to the USPTO website and enter your keyword search. Any results will appear from 1976 forward. In most cases, performing preliminary searches like this will serve as a good introduction to future more advanced searches. Viewing existing patents will help you identify the classifications used to categorize patents.

Understanding classifications

Patent classifications are a way through which inventors can locate one another’s patents and identify those inventions of similar subject matter. Patents are typically classified in accordance to that nation’s own classification system in addition to a more universal international classification system. By utilizing these methods, different nations can more easily locate and use existing patents when performing research.

The United States uses a subject matter classification system which is listed on the front page of each patent. These classifications are typically listed after the “U.S. Cl.” Section and contain several pairs of numbers. These pairs of numbers are divided by a forward slash, separating the main class (to the left) and its subclass (to the right). For example, one patent might show a classification number pair of “426/549” next to the U.S. classification. Class 426 relates to food or edible materials, such as processes, products and compositions. Subclass 549 relates to baked products, which narrows down its realm of application.

Some patents contain multiple pairs of classifications, which is quite common for any inventions that can be reasonably covered by more than one class and subclass. While the first pair listed in bold type on a parent is considered the most pertinent classification by the patent office, this does not mean it’s the only classification for that invention.

Investing accordingly

When a patent application is sent to the USPTO, patent examiners review the invention and compare it against their database for the existence of “prior art” or inventions already patented. USPTO examiners not only compare applications against the U.S. database, but also trade publications, catalogs, advertisements and many other resources made available.

Even after having performed a thorough patent search, you’ll want to invest money into utilizing a patent attorney. These individuals are not only adept at drafting and filing patents, but also performing extensive searches into patent databases and other areas of documentation.

Ways to obtain patents and perform patent searches include the following free and paid methods:

  • Perform a U.S. Patent search for free online through the USPTO website.
  • Search for patent applications worldwide through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) PatentScope service.
  • Hire a patent attorney or patent agent for a patentability opinion letter. This can take up to a month to perform and cost upwards of $1,500.
  • Request a world patent search to be performed through a world patent office. Due to the in-depth analysis of this option, prices range upwards of $2,000 for a world patent search.
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