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Searching for Patents Online
The United States patent system was (and still somewhat is) seen as a fairly impenetrable system, partly due to the difficult nature of finding a patent in their database. Thankfully it has gotten much easier to find patents online as the patent system is incorporated into online databases. Note that while there are many patent search engines available, there seem to be a few clear contenders.
Since I wanted to have some basic form of measurement, I searched for patents for the term "flyswatter" because it was the first thing that came to my mind. If you're looking for basic information on patents, check out "What is a Patent?" If instead, you want to understand how to get a patent, we have an article on that too.
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U.S. Patent Office Search Engine
It's probably a good idea to start with the official patent search engine, at least for patents issued in the United States. The United States Patent office at http://patft.uspto.gov/ offers a full database of registered patents. You can carry out simple keyword searches and pull up a full text description of any patent in the system. They do have a database for patents back to 1790, although the default settings for their full text database only goes back to 1976.
For the basic test, it pulled up 20 results for "flyswatter" and 21 when I expanded the search to 1790. Some of the results were a bit questionable, as it included several results that were just methods for trapping insects and spiders. A spring trap for catching spiders seemed fairly unrelated. I've actually had this problem in the past when I was searching for a relative's patent too. While their system is alright, it seems to have trouble really zeroing in on a topic.
Another annoyance is the simple fact that images are held in .tiff format on a separate page. You have to read through the text version, which often references the figures, and use a separate tab and image viewer to actually see the attached images.
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Google Patent Search Engine
As with most things related to technology, Google came out with a better and more user-friendly version. They incorporate the information from the patent office, but still use the familiar google format. This means you can basically just jump right onto http://www.google.com/patents and perform quick searches just as you normally would browse.
As for my unscientific test, it came up with 137 results for Flyswatter, which seemed fairly impressive. There were a few false positives that came from inventors describing other devices as "like a flyswatter", but there didn't seem to be any mind blowingly bad results. As another plus, it didn't seem to have a problem with the varying spellings, as "flyswatter" and "fly swatter" seemed to be given equal time.
Results are displayed in a fairly nice format and I liked it better than the patent office's format. Instead of a full text article, it's a neatly dived display and the images are right on the page in thumbnail form. You can bring them up with a click and easily download the full .pdf file through the large button at the top of the page.
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Priorsmart Patent Search Engine
This one was a neat surprise. It seems to be a very nice meta patent search engine. I normally would frown on this type of search, but the format and search procedure is so user friendly and simple that it really sticks out. You can find it here, at http://www.priorsmart.com/
The test won't really work for this one, because it's just examining other patent search engines. It searches the Patent Office's active patent database, its pending applications and the Google patent database. It also includes three worldwide options: WIPO, PatentLens and Espacenet. I personally didn't have much more luck with the worldwide ones, at least beyond what the US Patent Office had to offer, but it's a nice inclusion for easy global checks after you run through US databases. It also offers links to the patent databases for many other countries, if you need something specific.
The reason that I liked this one was due to its search process. As you should be able to see in the screenshot, you can input search terms and tell it to look for the terms in the title, description, abstract, etc. Clicking on any of the four tabs to the right or the country tabs at the bottom will pull up the advanced search from that database for your specifications. Best of all, it saves your specifications, so you can quickly search all relevant databases. It's a nice meta search option, but you will need to know what you're looking for. Google will still probably be a better starting space if you just want to do a quick search.
- Screenshots provided by author
- Author's own experience