Embracing patent information for successful innovation.

Best Practices for Patent Searching

Sep 19, 2019

by Andrea Davis

As engineers, we get excited to work on a new product or improve an existing one. Our brains thrive on the process of creation, on pushing the edge of technology forward. When it comes to reading and researching patents, however, eyelids often become heavy, immune to any amount of caffeine. Some engineers may simply avoid the topic all together, hoping the attorneys will figure it out. 

Patents are used both as a way of gathering knowledge about the current state-of-the-art, and as a means of blocking competitors from entering the marketplace. If you or your company’s goal is to protect any designs with patents, being aware of what is already patented puts you at an advantage. It can help you focus R&D on products and features not already discovered, and streamline the process when you are ready to file for a patent. 

False starts that waste time could allow other inventors to obtain patents that will eventually exclude your concepts, and place you at risk of infringing on a competitor’s product and potentially costly litigation.  

So let’s not make those mistakes. The gathering of the relevant patents for a particular product or feature is—logically enough—called “patent searching.” Some form of patent searching can be done by anybody. There are a few excellent free patent search tools that are available to anyone. The one most known might be Google Patents, but other websites like freepatentsonline.com, lens.org, or worldwide.espacenet.com, might be even better suited for methodical engineering minds. 

Examples of search-worthy features are endless. Some of the ones I covered during my career range from the ornamental design of a faucet, golf ball surface patterns, skateboard light fixtures, tire threads, or a toy with an embedded sensor to more complex and detailed components such as agricultural drones, locking mechanisms for medical spinal implants, transcutaneous magnetic stimulation, or 3D printing methods.

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If you are attempting to do a bit of prior art searching on your own, it’s important to tackle it with multiple approaches.  First, you might do a keyword search keeping in mind the synonyms of your key concepts; subsequent steps should include assignee and inventor searches of those active in the technology area, as well as citations of relevant references that are found.

An incredibly valuable tool for finding patents in mechanical engineering subjects is the patent classification, which is similar to the Dewey Decimal System and assigns patent subclasses to each patent based on their subject. If the numbers of included patents and applications are manageable, these focused patent subclasses can be reviewed in their entirety, or they can be slimmed down by combining them with complementing keywords.

As you advance through the process, there is also a professional community that spends most of its days conducting patent searches in specialized patent databases with search features that are not available to the public. These experts include patent searchers or researchers, patent analysts, and patent information professionals.

In addition to prior art searches, some patent professionals can also conduct what is called a patent landscape, which is a birds-eye view on a slice of technology that can illuminate the key players in a given patent space, patenting trends, and possible unexplored categories where innovation can be pursued.

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Another important type of search is an infringement search, also called freedom-to-operate or clearance search. Here the analyst uncovers existing patents and applications that claim a feature of the intended product. These kinds of projects are much more complicated and require careful review and analysis of patent claims and the legal status of patents, but they can be essential to managing risk and avoiding the danger of your product infringing on an existing patent. 

Any mechanical engineer spending time and resources on products is smart to incorporate a step in their workflow that includes review of relevant patents. Do the work on the front end. Engage a professional if you have to. This additional layer to the innovation cycle does incur a slight cost, but it minimizes the risk of litigation, streamlines and shortens the patent application process, and allows you to focus your resources on what matters most—ideas and products that are truly innovative.

Andrea Davis is the managing director at Bodkin IP in San Diego, CA.