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How to Perform a Patent Search

written by: Joli Ballew•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 9/10/2011

You can't file for a patent if someone else already owns it, thus, you have to perform a search to prove that your work is original. Often, you have to hire an attorney to do this for you, but you may be able to perform the search yourself.

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    A patent search is part of the patent application process. Why is a patent search important and how do you go about performing a search?

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    The Importance of a Patent Search

    Before you file for a patent you have to attempt to prove your invention is unique. You do not want to go through the time and expense required to file for a patent if the invention has already been patented. If that is the case and you file for a patent anyway, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will reject your application, and you won’t get your filing fee back (or your time). It’s best to know up front if your creation has already been invented and patented, and you do that by performing a patent search. Patent pending 

    If you plan to sell or market your patent or your patent pending invention, you’ll need a patent search prepared by an attorney. Most potential buyers, investors, or venture capitalists won’t even meet with you unless you can show them the results of a patent search, and that search has to be professionally obtained. It’s almost always best to have a patent attorney do the patent search.

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    Patent Search Caveats

    Unfortunately, there’s a backlog at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This means that there are many, many patents that have been filed in the past couple of years that have yet to be assessed by the patent office. It takes a long time to get a patent. What does this mean to you? It means that while you may not find an existing patent that matches your invention, that’s not to say there’s not one in the queue. You can’t search the patent pending queue, and it’s a first-come first-served line. You’ll still be taking a chance that your invention has already been created, and that the patent application you want to file is already in line ahead of yours.

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    Perform a Patent Search

    There are online resources you can use to find an existing patent. Visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s patent search page. There, you can perform a quick search, advanced search, or even search by patent number. The database offers information about all U.S. patents from 1790 to the current week, and is updated every Tuesday. Keep in mind these are patents that have been granted though, and do not include any patents in the queue for review.

    Tip: Make sure you need a patent and not a trademark or a copyright before continuing.

    To get started on your own, it’s best to start with a Quick Search:

    1.From the drop down list, select a year or range of years to search. Make your search relevant to the product. If you want to patent something that uses Bluetooth technology, there’s no reason to search the 1800’s!

    2.Think of two terms that describe your product. Enter the first term in the text entry box. Your first term should broadly describe your product in a single word, like shoe, phone, or tractor.

    3.Choose a field related to your first term from the related drop down list.

    4.Select a Quick Operator (AND, OR, or AND NOT) to define the relationship you want to apply to the first and second terms.

    5.Enter the second term. Tip: To broaden your search use Or. To lessen your search results, use And. For instance, Putter AND Ground vs. Putter OR Ground will provide completely different results.

    6.Select a field related to your second term from the related drop down list.

    7.Hit the Search button.

    You’ll need to perform this search many more times using various search terms, years, and field settings to decide if your invention is unique. Understand that it’s difficult to reach into the depths of the patents filed; you’ll never check every one. That’s why, although you can perform a search yourself, it’s best to let a patent attorney handle it. They know the best techniques for uncovering existing patents, and generally offer a guarantee that a patent for a similar product has not been issued.

    Tip: Remember, it can take years to get a patent, and other inventors are in line ahead of you!


  • The author created the Patent Pending logo shown here.

    It is the author's experience that while performing your own search may be enough to satisfy yourself that a similar patent doesn't exist, you'll still likely have to hire an attorney to perform a professional search to satisfy the US Patent office.