Date Published: 2000-05-01
© 2000, David Hitchcock, author of Patent Searching Made
Everyone knows that Americans are natural-born inventors. We
love to devise new ways to get things done, whether it be
cutting the lawn, opening a jar, or speeding across land,
air or water. If you have ever come up with one of these
ideas, your thoughts most likely turned to the next logical
question, which is: "Has somebody else already thought of
Why It Matters.
In the U.S., if you are the first person to come up with an
invention, you may very well be entitled to a patent on it.
And if you get a patent on an invention, you will be
granted a 17- to 20-year monopoly over its use. That
monopoly, depending on how you make use of it, may give you
new independence, or even the ability to fulfill your life
goals. How can you find out whether someone else has beaten
you to the punch (and even now may be cashing in on what
you're already thinking of as your invention)? Probably the
best way, is to see whether or not it has ever been
patented. Some great ideas have never received a patent,
but most have. A quick spin through the patent database can
give you a good head start on finding out just how
innovative your invention is.
The Bad Old Days.
Not too many years ago, there was no such thing as a quick
spin through the patent data-base. A patent search required
hiring a lawyer or professional patent searcher, at a cost
of $500 or more-sometimes much more. Few of us are willing
to spend that type of money just to gratify our curiosity.
So if you're like most people, you simply would have
concluded that since you thought of it, other people had
probably thought of it as well.
Free Online Searching.
Thanks to the Internet, you no longer have to give up so
easily. You can now do your own patent search in your spare
time, with only a reasonable amount of effort. Even better,
you can do it without spending more than a few dollars. If
it turns out that your invention has never before been
addressed in a patent, it may be that its time for a patent
has come. You can go online to find free access to patents
issued since 1971. Both the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
(USPTO - the governmental entity that issues patents) and
the IBM corporation provide free online databases.
By simply typing in words that describe your invention,
called key-words, at the USPTO's website you can search the
entire text and drawings of every U.S. patent issued since
1976. At IBM's website you can search issued patents all
the way back to 1971. However, text searches are limited to
the front page and claims section of the issued patent. The
front page includes the title of the invention and an
abstract (a one-paragraph description of the invention).
The claims section contains a series of tersely worded
statements that precisely delimit the scope of the patent.
So if your keywords are good, you should turn up something
if it's out there. If your idea involves technology that has
arisen since 1971, you can perform a relatively thorough
search using these Internet resources.
Perhaps searching online isn't convenient for you. Or
perhaps your idea involves something that is timeless (yet
another way to core an apple, maybe), which means you need
to search for patents issued before 1971. If a patent has
ever been issued for your idea, whether last year or last
century, then you will be barred from receiving a patent on
it, and you'll have to go on to your next idea. Because the
online databases only go back to 1971, you'll need another
way to search for patents issued before then. A great
resource for complete patent searching-from the first
patent ever issued to the latest-is a network of special
libraries called Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries
(PTDLs). Every state but Connecticut has at least one.
At a PTDL, you can perform computer searches of the PTO's
electronic database. Usage fees vary from free, to around
$50 per hour. Additionally, patents can be searched for free
on microfiche readers. These libraries are well-stocked not
only with patent materials, but also with reference
librarians who can be counted on to cheerfully help you use
the library resources.
Adapted from Patent Searching Made Easy, 2nd Edition, from Nolo Press(www.Nolo.com - 800-992-6656), by
David Hitchcock. Also Available at Amazon.com, Borders.com, and BarnesandNoble.com
© 2000, David Hitchcock
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