Generally speaking, you can protect your invention to the extent (and ONLY to the extent) that it is new and unusual. To know what is new; you have to first learn what is old.
A preliminary search can provide a good estimate as to how strong a patent you can hope to get. Patents are issued for things that are new and that are not obvious improvements on something else that is already known. A good search usually provides the basis for estimating just what is new and "non-obvious" about an invention -- and that's the only part you can hope to protect anyway.
You can do your own preliminary search on the internet.
There are numerous excellent patent databases available for free and operated by various patent offices. They differ widely in terms of what data are available and how easy or difficult it is to find what you're after. In general, they’re clunky and anything but user friendly. But – they’ve got the data.
Two of the most widely used patent databases are at the US Patent and Trademark Office's site. The USPTO supplies searchable text on all US patent applications published since 2001 and on all US patents issued since the early 1970s (For quite a while, the cut-off was in 1976, but in early 2006 the PTO began working back from that date to capture data from earlier patents). For patents before the cut-off date, the only data in each record in the search database is the patent number and the patent’s subject classification(s) This, of course, means that you can either learn to use the Manual of Classification of Patents (it’s on the website too – a mere 150,000 or so categories), or miss most of the older (and generally more basic) references. Once you find a citation that appears interesting, you can read the text (if it’s new enough) or pull up an image file.
The European Patent Office ESPACE search site provides access to something
on the order of 20 million patents and allows you to download complete
documents in pdf format. ESPACE has a keyword search interface that is much
more user friendly than the USPTO’s. Not surprisingly, the most effective way
to search this database is by either the EPO’s or the World Intellectual
Property Organization’s subject classification, both of which are completely
different from the USPTO’s. You can also
find search facilities run by the patent offices of
Don’t forget that all the world’s technical knowledge isn’t wrapped up neatly in issued patents. To do a thorough search, you need to look at non-patent resources as well. One of the major internet search engines, such as Google will often turn up important prior art. (And there’s also a Google Patents site for searching and downloading copies of US patens).
Both the quality and the completeness of a search on any of these databases depend on
You can also arrange for a professional search.
Expect your patent agent or attorney to advise a professional search even if you have done a careful preliminary one. A good search should retrieve 5-10 patents conceptually close to your invention, and should include a patentability report pointing out what appears to be "closest" to each significant feature of your invention. The report should give you a general assessment of how much protection a patent is likely to offer you. Be sure to pay close attention to the list of limitations set by the prior art. An inventor who pursues a patent regardless of the limitations usually gets a worthless patent.
Good professional novelty searches usually cost $500-$1500, depending on the subject area and search method. Please note that the format of a search report and the cost of a search are no guarantee of its quality.
If you want to try a search now, go to my links page and review a recently updated list of sites.
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