How Do I Patent Search?

Rich Goldstein

Founder & Principal Patent Attorney

Patent searches are a necessary part of the patent application process that helps ensure your invention is truly original. The United States Patent and Trademark Office will reject any patent application looking to get a patent for an invention that already exists. 

How Do I Patent Search?

Conducting patent searches can be time-consuming and confusing, so we have a few tips and tricks to help you through this process. 

What Are Patent Searches?

Patent searches are searches conducted within various databases that catalog all of the patents that currently exist.

Using various keywords and phrases, the user conducts searches within these databases to try and find any patents that may be identical or similar to the user’s invention. Patent searches can be conducted by you, a patent attorney, or a combination of both. 

A man using a laptop and a phone

Why Patent Searches Are Important

Patent searches are a very important part of the patent application process. Even before you draft or submit your patent application, you should conduct your patent searches. This is because patent searches let you know if others have already obtained a similar patent. 

Cost Assessment Of Patent Application

Patent searches will help you make the assessment and determination of whether or not to file even a provisional patent application for your invention. This is because patent search results will help you identify whether there are patents that are identical, or closely similar to your invention. 

If there is an identical invention that has already been patented, it will save you substantial time and money when you now hold off on filing the patent application and going through the lengthy and costly process

Thus, it can be a wise investment decision to conduct thorough patent searching up front to make sure you uncover any potential identical inventions before you go down the provisional patent application or non-provisional patent application road. 

Familiarizing Yourself With Prior Art

Patent searches are also important because they help you become familiar with the prior art that exists that is related to your patent. The term “prior art” simply means all of the information that is available to the public before the date that you file for your patent.

If you find patents during your patent searching that are similar but not identical to your invention, these types of patents are still very important to understand. This is so that you can distinguish your patent from the other similar ones. 

It may be helpful for you to incorporate the distinguishing features of your patent into your patent application so that the differences are emphasized. Knowing how your invention is different from everything else that already exists will go a long way in explaining things during the application process. Being able to distinguish your invention can often make or break patent approval. 

Patent Examiner Patent Searches

A patent examiner from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO, will review your patent application for approval. As part of that review process, the patent examiner will conduct his or her own patent searches through the various USPTO patent search databases. 

The patent examiner will issue Office Actions to you to address any potential similarities between your invention and other patents. You will then have the opportunity to address the patent examiner’s concerns. 

This is why conducting your own patent searching up front is so important. It is also why it can be beneficial to understand early on how your invention is different from any patents that may have similar features to your own. 

USPTO Patent Search Databases

You can conduct your patent searches within the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s various patent databases. There are multiple databases maintained by the USPTO for patent documents, and you should familiarize yourself with all of them in your patent search process.

Full Text And PDF Image Databases

There are two types of databases by the USPTO for issued patents:

  1. Full-Text; and
  2. PDF Image.

The full-text patent database has full texts for issued patents from 1976 to the present. Using the USPTO full-text database is efficient and can be very effective in bringing up similar patents. 

The USPTO’s image database has all patent documents issued from 1790 to the present. Using the USPTO image database can be harder to search through than the full-text database because you cannot craft as streamlined of searches. 

This is because the PDF image database only allows you to search by either patent number or classification code. Therefore, it can be harder to fruitfully search for the PDF image database. Nevertheless, the image database will bring in those older patents that you may need to still double-check. 

In general, use the USPTO’s PDF Image database as the final check-in of your patent search process. One important note, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with classes and subclasses before you dive into this database, as that is the primary way you will be able to find any relevant patents.

Issued Patents Vs. Patent Applications

The USPTO has two main patent-related databases:

  1. A database for patents that have been issued;
  2. A database for patent applications that have been published. 

While there is some overlap between these two databases, it is important to conduct a patent search within both databases because each database contains unique hits and unique patent documents. 

The search results will be different because not all patent applications are published, and not all applications are eventually granted patents. Moreover, even if a patent has not been issued for your idea yet, it will be important for you to know if a patent application for your idea is already pending

Third-party Patent Search Databases

There are also third party patent search databases beyond the USPTO that will facilitate your patent searching for relevant patents. These databases have advanced filters. This includes searching by date, author, and other key features beyond class and subclass. 

Many people opt to start with the third party patent search databases because of their more familiar interface. This can help save time and money. They also tend to offer quicker access to data analytics than the United States Patent Office’s databases. These databases also convert non-English text to English quickly and cluster documents within patent families.

In general, it can be smart to use both the USPTO patent search databases and third-party databases to conduct the most comprehensive patent search that will be most helpful in the long run. 

A screen showing a google search page

Google Patent Database

Google is one such third party patent search database. Google’s patent database has an extremely similar interface to the typical searching database, so it can be incredibly intuitive to navigate, as it mimics a platform you are likely very familiar with. 

Google’s database is a great place to start when you want to use broad search terms. Google’s database is effective in being able to bring up relevant search results from a broad, natural language search. Thus, you may want to use it in your initial search so you can identify the classification best fit for your invention. 

Free Patents Online Database

Free Patents Online is another third party search database that is effective for initial patent searching. It also has an intuitive interface for you to conduct your searches. Also importantly, it provides you a way to download patents into pdfs and save the files to your system. 

This means it can also be helpful to use Free Patents Online to download prior art that you may have found through other databases. 

Brainstorm for Your Patent Searching

Before you dive into the patent search databases, it can be smart to spend some time brainstorming terms that can be used to conduct more efficient and fulsome patent searching later on. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has a great video that walks through a step-by-step strategy for conducting a patent search. Here are some of ours. 

To help brainstorm terms to be used as you conduct your searches, it can be helpful to think through some of the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of your invention?
  • What are the simple words you would use to describe your invention?
  • Is your invention a process or procedure? If so, what are the steps?
  • Is your invention a product?
  • What material is your invention made of?
  • What does your invention look like?
  • What does your invention accomplish?
  • How is your invention used?

Jot down answers as you think through these questions. Try to describe your idea out loud to others This will help you simplify the concepts and develop keywords. 

Here are some additional tips as you draft patent search terms:

  • Identify keywords for your invention;
  • Identify any technical terms that help describe your invention;
  • Avoid overly broad terms;
  • Avoid generic terms;
  • Think of synonyms for the terms you initially choose.

This brainstorming and even the patent searching will be an iterative process. You will learn more as you search and review prior art. As you conduct searches and review prior art, you will begin to develop a greater understanding of the terms commonly used and the common phrasing for patent applications within your specific field and invention topic.

Searching Classifications and Subclassifications

After you have conducted some broader searches, especially within third party databases, it can be helpful to switch over to the USPTO website and begin your searches within the USPTO’s classes and subclasses. 

The Patent Office sorts every patent that it issues into various classes, called its classification system. This classification system is a system for organizing all patent documents submitted to the USPTO into specific technology groupings. There are about 450 classes in total. Patent class examples include Apparel, Cutlery, Metal Working, Sewing, and Woodworking. 

Within each of these classes are numerous subclasses. There are hundreds of thousands of subclasses for every class. Subclasses drill into patents at a deeper, more granular level.

Searching through the classes and subclasses related to your invention is necessary in order to conduct a thorough patent search and make sure you have covered all of your bases. Using the USPTO’s Advanced Search Page can be very effective in learning the classification system and in conducting this classification and subclassification search. 

Searching Using Multiple Terms

Make sure you are not using only one of two search terms to try and find related prior art and relevant patents. Have as diverse of a vocabulary as possible, and make sure you use as many words that are related to your invention as possible. 

This means that instead of just searching for the term “tool,” also search for “instrument,” “device,” “gadget,” “apparatus,” and “appliance.” 

Use a thesaurus to help you come up with alternative terms. Discuss your invention with others and take note of the terms you use. Speaking things out loud and having to explain them will help you come up with alternative words and phrases that can be helpful in the patent search process. 

A person writing on a notepad

Keep Detailed Search Notes

As you search the various patent databases, it is a good idea to keep detailed records of all of your efforts. Take notes on the search terms you used, the databases you reviewed, and the various parameters you may have applied.  

Keeping notes will help you to eliminate duplicate efforts. Conducting patent searches typically take many weeks to be fully comprehensive. Be sure to note any patents you have questions about to consult with a patent attorney later on.

Whether to Use a Patent Attorney for Searching

After you have spent some time on your own searching through the various patent databases, it can be very smart to engage a patent attorney to conduct patent searches for your invention. Patent attorneys are much more experienced with databases and can provide important legal advice. 

They are skilled at using different search terms and navigating through the various classes and subclasses. This means your patent attorney may find additional prior art that was never on your radar when you conducted your searches. 

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