To start off with, you can do two types of novelty searches to see what has been done before (these are called ‘novelty searches’ as they give you an indication of whether your idea is new or not). The first type of search is one in which you search for patent using the names of companies or individuals that you know have been active in your field of interest.
A second type of search is a keyword search, much like you would use keywords to search for information on the World Wide Web. Either way, you will be astounded by the amount of information you will discover. Keep on refining your searches using synonyms and some of the words that you pick up in the patent documents (called ‘patent specifications’) that you find. As mentioned above, you may also want to search through the patent databases of the European, Canadian, and Australian Patent Offices (just type in the name of the Patent Office into a search engine and you’ll most likely find it quite easily).
The easiest way to get the patent information you need, though, is to go to Google, type in Google Patents and, once you hit the Google Patents page, type in your keywords to see what pops up. This will give you a good idea of the patent landscape that you will be playing in, but bear in mind that many patents are published in languages other than English, so you might miss them. Google can give you machine translation of certain foreign texts, but not all of them. Because patents are indexed using not only keywords but also huge amounts of bibliographic information, you’ll be able to find the names of other companies active in your field of expertise, see where they are located, see who cited their patents (another useful lead to find technology in your field), and see who individual inventors in your field are.
Some companies use these records to identify prolific inventors in their field of expertise that they can then try and poach from their competitors. While you’re doing this, make sure you write down all your thoughts regarding your idea – the brand, the look & feel, the advantages, the disadvantages, the various components, variations of your idea that could work and the like. Also, keep notes on how you came up with the various ideas, and how your product or service is different from others. You will also see that it is possible to search using the patent classes into that patents are classified. These classes are only useful if you have an exact description of your product and you wish to limit your search to a particular application only.
Remember that no search can ever be considered exhaustive or conclusive, as not all the patent records of all the countries are searchable on-line. In addition, not all novelty-destroying disclosures may have been made in patent specifications – such disclosures may also have been made in trade journals or scientific literature related to your field. In addition, the patent records for your country might not even be available online. It’s always worth travelling down to your local Patent Office or getting a patent attorney to do a search through your country’s records to ensure that you are free to make and use your idea (whether you have a patent for it or not) – this is explained in the section dealing with patent infringement searches.
The patent searches should be done as thoroughly as possible, but you must always remember that your results are dependent on your choice of keywords and the accuracy and completeness of the patent records you are searching. Bear in mind also that there may be a potentially damaging disclosure out there that you could miss completely – this is one of the reasons why you should put as much information into a patent specification at the time of writing it (discussed below), so that you have as many potential fallback positions as possible, should earlier documents that pre-date your patent filing date (also called the ‘prior art’) come to the fore at a later stage.
When using keywords, try to think of as many possible descriptions of your invention as possible. Use a dictionary and thesaurus to look for as many alternatives to each search term as possible and include these in your search. Such a search will give you an indication of whether anyone else has brought an invention identical to yours into the public domain. As you’re doing your search, print out or save the most relevant patents or other documents that you find. Remember, you will have to distinguish your idea from any and all of these prior disclosures (referred to as ‘prior art’) and what you want to create is something that is truly new and inventive.