10 Points on Using Online Patent Databases

This post is for those that are not familiar with online patent resources and how they can be used by individual inventors or small companies. We advise always discussing a new invention with a patent attorney.  However it is also possible to find a lot of information online which will help in decision-making about whether to file a patent application.  This post is written from the perspective of a UK-based Patent Attorney advising UK-based individuals and companies.

1.  Online Databases of Patent Cases

The following 5 sources provide good searchable databases of existing patent applications and patents:

Google Patents

The European Patent Office

Espacenet

The US Patent and Trademark Office

– Patent Scope at WIPO

2.  Is it New?

Many ideas are not patentable simply because they are not new. Searching patent databases will allow you to see whether your idea is new.  If a published application or patent describes your idea it will be more difficult for you to obtain patent protection. You may still be able to obtain patent protection for a narrower, more specific, form of your idea.

3.  How Might the Idea Be Described in a Patent Specification?

Finding examples of patent specifications in your technical area will show you how an invention is defined in the ‘claims’ and how it is generally described in a patent application.  That can help in thinking about the idea in the right way, and may help you to distil the idea into what new products and activities can be claimed.

4.  Existing Patent Specifications are a Resource for Ideas and How to Apply Them

Well written patent applications can be filled with ideas for how to use ideas in different ways.  By reading existing patent specifications you may come up with new ways of thinking about your idea which may help you to think about how broadly you would want patent protection.  It may also allow you to identify other technologies which could be used with your idea.

5.  Are Companies Filing Patent Applications in Your Technical Area?

Unfortunately there are certain technical areas where patent protection can be difficult to get.  Many apps for mobile phones cannot be protected by a patent, though advice from a patent attorney should be sought on a case-by-case basis because it is a difficult judgment to make.  In addition patent filings are sometimes not the best way to proceed commercially. It may be better to rely on the approach of keeping your invention a secret.  So, if you are unable to locate patent filings in your technical area you may wish to think about why that might be the case. Is it because this type of technology is not patentable or is it because companies in this area do not consider patents to be commercially useful?

6.  Will it be Difficult to Get a Patent?

If you find many patent specifications which describe technologies that are similar to your idea you may find it difficult to persuade Patent Offices to grant a patent for your idea.  Patent are granted for inventions which are new, but also inventive.  That means they must contribute something that is more than obvious over what is known.  However bear in mind that ‘inventiveness’ is difficult to judge and requires patent attorney advice.  If you do locate existing patent cases that are close to your idea then it is possible these will also be considered by Patent Offices when they are examining your patent application.  You may wish to think about how you could argue your idea is inventive over such cases.

7.  Freedom to Operate

Bear in mind that other people’s patents may cover your products and activities.  Therefore if you are going to be carrying out your idea yourself you’ll need to establish that you have the freedom to do so.  In the UK you can only be sued based on a granted patent.  Therefore if you are searching patent databases to discover whether you have freedom to operate you need to bear in mind the difference between patent applications which are not granted and patents which are.  In particular the claims of patent applications may change (normally becoming narrower) before grant occurs.

8.  Potential Customers, Collaborators, Investors and Licensees (or Lack of)

Identifying parties who are filing patent applications in your technical area could be commercially useful in many ways.  Such parties could be potential customers, collaborators or investors.  They could also be interested in buying your patent application or patent, or in taking a licence.  Conversely if you do not find parties filing in your technical areas then this indicate a lack of commercial interest, and you may find it difficult to sell or licence your patent case.

9.  Likelihood of Attack on Your Patent Cases

Monitoring the behaviour of parties in your technical area may also give you an indication of how likely it is that your patent cases could be attacked by competitors.  Patent cases can be attacked before and after grant, for example using third party observations and opposition procedures.  Patent databases can be used to see how often patent cases in your area are attacked and may allow you to identify companies with aggressive patent policies.

10. Competitor Activity

Parties filing patent applications in your area could be potential competitors.  Their patent filings may give you an idea of their areas of interest, the directions they are taking and how fast they are progressing.  Knowing about their patent cases will also allow you to consider whether you wish to attack them, particularly if they are relevant to your freedom to operate.

You may also wish to see related articles Advice to People with Ideas and Advice to Scientists Setting Up a Company.

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