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Patent Searching 101

Written by Gene Quinn
Patent Attorney & Founder of IPWatchdog
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Inventors and entrepreneurs who are looking to cut costs frequently want to do their own search.  This is a wise first move, but you really need to be careful.  It is quite common for inventors to search and find nothing even when there are things that could and would be found by a professional searcher.  So while it makes sense to do your own search first, be careful relying on your own search to justify spending the thousands of dollars you will need to spend to ultimately obtain a patent.  For more on patent searches generally see US Patent Search.

If you are going to do your own searching and find relevant patents you are going to need to learn some strategies, and also about the free tools that are available to you.  If you are going to do your own preliminary patent searching you will want to take a look at the United States Patent Office patent search page. A lot of information can be found free, and the system is not terribly difficult to use. There is also an excellent Help Section on the Patent Office website to educate inventors on how to use the online search features. There is also another excellent (and free) site that you should use when searching – Free Patents Online. Whenever I search I always use both the USPTO and Free Patents Online. Perhaps the best thing about Free Patents Online is that they provide copies of the actual PDF documents, which contain all the images. Using the images on the USPTO website is cumbersome to say the least.

Free Patents Online is also normally much faster than the USPTO site. Having said that, I personally find the patent search engine of the Patent Office better, although Free Patents Online has made some nice recent improvements. Nevertheless, when I find a relevant patent I go to Free Patents Online for the PDFs and to access related patents, which is much easier because everything is hyperlinked there. So once you find a handful of relevant patents definitely go to Free Patents Online so you can easily jump back and forth and look at the patents that are cited in each relevant patent you find.  

I suggest that you consider using the strengths of both the USPTO and Free Patents Online sites to make your searching easier. Google has also unveiled Google Patent Search, which is lightening fast (unlike the USPTO online database), but does not have that many search fields.  There are also some holes in the database.  I have specifically looked for patents I know to exist and cannot always find them.  Additionally, the most recent patents are not available on Google.  What this means is you cannot only rely on Google, but you must use Google.  The Google database covers patents that are issued all the way back to US Patent No. 1.  This scope is much broader than either Free Patents or the USPTO .  So while you might not find everything, you really need to check yourself using the Google database.

When using the USPTO search features, either at the USPTO website or on Free Patents Online, one trick to improve search quality is to start by using the Advanced Search Page and searching in the specification field. Lets say, for example, you are looking for patents that relate to insulated containers for carrying beverages. In order to do this you will first need to pick a term or phrase that might appear within the written description of issued patents. Following this example, you might try in the search box – SPEC/”insulating beverage container”. When this search was conducted the results returned a list of 14 patents issued since 1976 that have used that phrase. This points to the first problem encountered by doing your own patent search online at the USPTO. You can only do full text searching back to 1976. This is probably not too much of a concern for those operating in the high-tech sector, but important to known nonetheless.

In this case there are not many to choose from. Many times, however, the list will contain hundreds of patents depending upon the popularity of the term or phrase selected. For example, if you search “SPEC/thermos”, you will find hundreds of patents that use this word in the specification. In fact, at the time this sample search was conducted, no fewer than 743 US patents have the word “thermos” in the specification, and that is only for patents issued since 1976. So what should you do now? If you find too many patents, rework the specification field search. Ultimately, upon receiving manageable results, just click on several of the patents.

Once you receive manageable results you need to read the patents and see which ones are relevant. Try various search terms to make sure you are covering all possible descriptions of the invention. Along the way, as you read the patents and identify related ones keep track of the numbers and identify the US classification that relates to the type of invention you are searching. Upon identifying several US classifications that seem to relate to your invention, return to the Advanced Search Page and do a classification search. For example, again following our example, you may notice that classification 206/545 seems relevant. As it turns out, this classification relates to special receptacles or packages with an insulating feature. See US Classes by Number & Title. Therefore, it would seem that patents within this classification are potentially highly relevant. As it turns out, there are only 131 patents issued since 1976 that were categorized in this classification.

Admittedly, becoming familiar with the intricacies of doing a quality US patent search on your own may take time. Also, when searching using the USPTO system there are a number of fields that are searchable through the Advanced Search Page, which means that there are any number of ways to begin to tackle any search. If you are a serial inventor it is probably worthwhile spending time becoming acquainted with this and other ways to search. Having said this, however, if you are not intimately familiar with both advanced searching techniques and the Patent Classification System, you are quite likely to miss what you are looking for in your own search. While it is advisable for every inventor to at least do a preliminary search on their own, it is not uncommon for inventors to do a search and find nothing. Every time I do a patent search I find patents that were findable in the Patent Office database, but not located by the inventor. Sometimes those patents are tangentially related, sometimes they are quite close and sometimes they are exactly what the customer has invented. This is no doubt caused by the fact that a patent search is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

Any successful search must use rely upon the Patent Classification System, and any successful search (in my opinion) my start out extremely broad to make sure that the proper US classifications are identified. While the classification system is helpful, never forget that patent are classified as the patent office sees fit. In order to identify the appropriate classification a broad search is necessary to make sure you familiarize yourself with how inventors and patent attorneys routinely characterize certain inventions, features, scientific principles and concepts. Only after you have a broad idea of all possible descriptions can you meaningfully search the classification systems. Having said this, let me acknowledge that some will disagree with this last statement. Frequently a patent classification search is the only type of search that is conducted by individuals who are professional patent searchers. It is important to realize, however, that a professional searcher only searches for a living and is far more familiar with the classification system than any inventor or even any patent attorney. I also want to point out that even if you think you are familiar enough with the classification system, you are not!  Take a look at this patent:

US Patent No. 6,619,810
Halloween treat carrier
Issued September 16, 2003

This invention, according to claim 1, is “a container having thereon a Halloween design, wherein the container and/or the Halloween design comprises a glow-in-the-dark material.” While this invention is outrageous and it is ridiculous that it was ever patented, that is not the point here. The point is with respect to the US classification for this patent. Prior to reading on, go to the US classification menu on the Patent Office website. Take some time and try and figure out what classification this invention would best be placed in. What you will find, I suspect, is that using the classification system in the first instance is at best cumbersome.

Now I invite you to review this patent – US Patent No. 6,619,810. Notice that the US classification for this patent is 362/84 and 362/156. Notice that 362/84 is in bold. This means that it is the primary US classification for this invention. If you look at class 362 you learn that the class is broadly titled “Illumination”. The subclass of 84 relates to “Light source or light source support and luminescent material.” The secondary subclass of 156 a container, specifically a “bag, purse or trunk”. When looking at this particular invention in the first instance how many would have thought that this invention would best be described as a light source support and/or as an invention related to illumination? Once you narrow down the proper class to illumination finding subclass 156 would not be difficult, and maybe even finding subclass 84 might be possible. The point with this exercise, however, is to illustrate that finding a classification number first is difficult if not impossible. It is always more wise to broadly search, perhaps searching the specification (using SPEC/) and find somewhat relevant patents. Then with respect to the most relevant patents, make note of their US classification numbers and then search those numbers. The reason individual inventors do not find the most relevant patents is because they almost always fail to follow up the broad search with a classification search. In every patent search I can remember doing the most relevant patents were not discovered until I identified the most likely US classifications and did a classification search.

Also remember that it is critically important to figure out what things are called.  I cannot stress this enough.  You need to use different names and labels.  You will find that patent attorneys typically call certain features by a select few names.  These names are not always obvious, but once you figure out what the industry calls something you are far more likely to find relevant patents.

If you feel you need the assistance of a patent attorney I can help. I have been helping independent inventors and start-up companies since 1998, and I am a member of the Board of Directors of the United Inventors Association.  If you are interested in my assistance please send me an e-mail and we can discuss further about how I can assist you.

Good luck!

About the Author

Eugene R. Quinn, Jr.
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
US Patent Attorney (Reg. No. 44,294)
Zies, Widerman & Malek

B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Rutgers University
J.D., Franklin Pierce Law Center
L.L.M. in Intellectual Property, Franklin Pierce Law Center

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Gene is a US Patent Attorney and the founder of Known by many as “The IPWatchdog.” Gene started the widely popular intellectual property website in 1999, and since that time the site has had millions of unique visitors.Gene has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, CNN Money and various other newspapers and magazines worldwide. He represents individuals, small businesses and start-up corporations. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.