Before spending time and money submitting a patent application, be sure to do an online patent search to determine whether or not someone already owns a patent that covers your invention. For more than two centuries, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has been reviewing and storing technological innovations created by people from all over the world. So when you come up with a great invention that you want to protect and market, you need to do your homework and determine whether it, or something very similar, has already been patented.
Below are some suggestions of places to look when searching for patents. See FindLaw's Patents section for more resources.
Patents awarded by the USPTO grant patent holders a limited-time monopoly over the making, selling, and marketing of the invention. Patents last from 14 to 20 years, depending on the type of patent granted (plant, design, or utility), and in exchange for the exclusive window, the patent becomes part of the public domain after it expires, at which time anyone can utilize the invention for any purpose. So, there are plenty of expired patents that are currently in the public domain that you can use as a part of your invention.
Doing an Online Patent Search
Thanks to some of the patents already in the USPTO database, you can now search the entire library of patents using a number of methods. You can go to the USPTO website and do a full-text search for patents from 1976 to the present as well as patent applications from 2001 to the present. Additionally, the USPTO has images for every patent from 1790 to the present and basic information such as each patent's name, title and patent number.
If you're more comfortable using a search engine other than the USPTO database, Google also has a search engine devoted to patents. The user interface is a bit more intuitive than the USPTO site, and Google also has a variety of options to more quickly locate a particular type of patent, patent date, or patent owner. Google has downloaded all the information from the USPTO and uses that database to find its results.
There are also a number of online fee-based services that have extensive search capabilities and/or have cataloged the data from the USTPO and allow downloads of their information. One example is Patent Complete. Fee-based sites can assist with finding relevant patents and save you the time and aggravation of keeping track of every claim and keyword you've researched.
Because of the sheer number of patents, your search should be as comprehensive as possible to avoid submitting an application that is sure to be denied.
Whatever method you use for searching patents, you should confirm the search results directly with the USPTO website. Also, if there is a question as to whether a patent covers your invention, you might want to consider consulting with a patent attorney to discuss the merits of your invention in reference to the current patents. You'll also have to weigh the cost of the attorney's fees with the cost and time of preparing and submitting a patent application that may be rejected because of an existing patent.
Searching for Patents in a Federal Library
If you're not comfortable doing online patent searches, you can do a comprehensive search of every patent ever awarded at a Patent and Trademark Resource Center (PTRC). The PTRC is a network of libraries (at least one in each state) that house full information on every patent in the USPTO.
The PTDL is a great resource for finding patents because they not only have all of the relevant information, but certain branches also offer training in patent searching techniques and all branches have librarians trained in search methods that can assist you in finding relevant patents.
Whether you choose to do an offline or online patent search, you should first brainstorm a list of keywords that are related to your invention (its use, classification, purpose, etc.). Then do a search including those keywords to search for inventions and claims that relate to your invention. Patent searches take time and patience, but are well worth it to avoid wasting money on developing an idea that has no chance of being patented.
Get Peace of Mind: Hire a Patents Attorney
The use of a novel technology or method often is a company's main competitive advantage. If you have any questions or concerns about whether your invention is truly unique and patentable, consider meeting with a patents attorney near you.