If you’ve just created what you think might be the “next big thing,” it’s important to know whether someone else has done the same. The patent process is crucial in gaining legal rights over your invention property so you can share your work with the word without stepping on anyone’s toes. But before you try to get a patent, it’s not only helpful but imperative to do your research — starting with a patent search.
If you’re hoping to get the right to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” an invention, you’ll want to get a patent. The first part of the patent process is a patent search that looks through all existing patents. In this search, you’ll be comparing your work to prior art — any work that’s existed before you’ve filed for your parent — to see how different your invention is from work that’s already available.
A patent search is necessary to ensure that your invention is novel. While you may know of previous work that’s similar but not the same as your work, a patent search clarifies whether there’s anything that exists that may conflict with your patent application. Because everything that’s patented might not be recognizable or easily accessible to the public, a formal search will bring up any relevant patents, including ones for inventions that have never been available for purchase.
Patent searches also help the inventor identify what prior art is closest to their own work. This allows you to understand how patentable the invention is, as well as what the patent application may look like.
These steps are based on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) “Seven Step Strategy” for conducting patents. We are not legal experts — more information and training are available at Patent and Trademark Resource Centers.
When searching for a patent, you’ll need to classify your invention in terms that describe how it’s made and what it’s used for. Consider how you created your invention — in terms of source materials and technology — as well as the purpose of your invention. Because you’re looking to see if there’s something similar to what you’ve created, it can be helpful to think of terms that describe inventions like yours.
On the USPTO website, you can search to find relevant Cooperative Patent Classification, a classification system developed by the USPTO and the European Patent Office (EPO). Using the search box, type in “CPC Scheme” followed by the terms you’ve come up with in step 1. Be specific to avoid any irrelevant results. If you don’t get any results, try finding synonyms for your terms and searching those. To search based on International Patent Classification, you can move to the International Patent Classification Catchword Index.
Your initial classification search will take you to a classification’s Class Scheme. A patent classification scheme classifies patents in several ways, including use, effect and structure. Look through the Class Scheme and pick which classification is most relevant to your invention. The scheme is organized in hierarchical terms, with more specific classifications under larger, more general classifications.
Often, each classification will have a definition linked to it. Looking at this definition ensures you’ve chosen a classification that’s most similar to your invention. A definition will usually consist of a short description and may also include a table or a visual.
Once you’ve got the classification closest to your invention, return to the USPTO homepage and click “PatFT” to search for all patents assigned to your chosen CPC Classification. You’ll want to search the entire database, not just a specific time period, and include the classification you found.
Use your search results to review patents of inventions similar to yours, clicking on the patent number or title to see the full text of the patent. Don’t waste your time pursuing the whole document; the abstract and images will be the most useful in weeding out irrelevant patents and quickly choosing the best to investigate.
After you’ve found the most relevant patents, review each in-depth, going beyond the abstract and image to the other sections of the text. Look out especially for the claims of the patent, which outline the property boundaries of the patent holder. Other sections of the patent, such as drawings pages, specification and references will also be helpful. References can also link you to further relevant patents to review. Whatever you find most relevant, print or download.
The next step in your search will take you back to the home page of the USPTO site, this time to the AppFT search function. You’ll want to use your CPC Classification again, this time to find any published patent applications for the classification. Instead of searching the entire database, limit your years search to 2001–present (the U.S. has only published patent applications since then).
Use your skills from step 6 to quickly review and find the most relevant patent publications. As when finding patents, use the full-text version of the patent application to look at the abstract and images. Set aside all patent applications you think are relevant to your work.
As in step 7, review each patent application in depth. Once again, the claims are the most crucial information, though other parts like the drawing pages, specifications and references may prove helpful as well. After you’ve decided on the most relevant applications, print or download them.
Although these steps may have led you to the bulk of your search, don’t hesitate to broaden your scope. You may find further publications and examples that will be relevant to your future application. Expand your search by doing a keyword search in your CPC classification, using the U.S. Patent Classification (USPC) or rerunning your search for international patents in Espacenet.
Having someone review your search is a great way to make sure you’ve covered all your bases. A registered patent attorney or patent agent can not only review your search work but also do their own follow-up search on your invention.
Doing a patent search is a necessary first step toward gaining your patent. It’s not only the best way to ensure your invention is novel but also gives you, the inventor, a way to compare your work with prior art. Start your search with the USPTO search bar to find classification schemes, definitions, applications and extensive relevant information on patents.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.
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