Conducting a patent search
There's something in all of us that longs to be the author a really brilliant invention - that alchemist's stone that will transform ordinary existence into the sort of life/bank balance enjoyed by Bill Gates. It can't be that difficult. I know: how about a sort of network arrangement which allows computers all over the world to communicate with each other? You could call it the - I don't know - the 'interwebnet'. What? .oh. Well, how about discs which you could store films on, hours more footage than a video? What? .oh. These examples - which are probably worth a patent in themselves for sheer ingenuity - illustrate why a patent search is often a wise preliminary step. To meet the first of the three basic requirements for the granting of a patent, your innovation has to be just that: new.
A proper patent search is not, however, for the faint hearted. Taking the US as an example, millions upon millions of patents have been granted since the laws came into being. There are two things which make it a bit easier. Firstly, those millions of patents are divided into classifications, a bit like a library, which you can look up in catalogue form or on the US patent office website (www.uspto.gov). Secondly, if the patents in question were granted after 1975, you can also look these up on the website. There are also drawings of pre-1975 patents on the site but these are not generally as useful as the full patent which you will find in any of the state depository libraries. Addresses for these are - you've guessed it - on the USPTO site. The site also includes a section on how to conduct a systematic patent search, which involves some skill in itself plus a good chunk of time and patience. If you are lacking in one or more of these, it's possible to hire professional patent searchers. Alternatively you could approach someone else with technical expertise in your field.
A patent application is a time consuming and expensive process, so if there is any doubt about the novelty of the invention a patent search is a useful thing. However, it is far from conclusive. It can only work negatively, i.e. it can prove that the idea in question is not new, but it cannot prove it is new. Only at the stage of examination of the application by the patent office will this be determined for sure - and, as with all legal processes, there is a degree of subjectivity in the examination. That's because of the sheer scope of the search variables. It's not only other patent applications that have to be taken into consideration, there's also what is called 'prior art'. This more or less means that if the idea was published in any form in the US or any other country more than one year before the application, the application is not valid. It may be possible to get round this if you know about it - another reason the search is useful. But in the end, every patent application has a hint of a gamble about it, which is why it's almost essential to talk to an expert.