How to do patent search using free patent databases?

Jyoti SarmaPatents14 Comments

a magnifying glass describing patent search

Do you have an invention developed that you want monopoly over and you want to restrict others from using it for any purposes without your permission? Then ‘Patenting’ your invention is the right answer.  A patent gives protection to your invention by excluding others from making, using and selling of it unless you allow. By doing a patent search, an inventor can have a better idea whether his/her invention is likely to be patented.

Before you could apply for a patent, it is important to know the existing prior art references which talk about technologies identical to your invention. Now, you might be thinking what this prior art is!!

In common words, anything which is known to public, in any form, can be termed as prior art. A poster or a painting can also be a prior art. It should be noted that prior art not necessarily has to be commercially available. One of the eligibilities to get a patent grant is that your invention should not be known to public prior to your filing. Your invention HAS TO be the first of its kind to go out for public knowledge, otherwise novelty is killed. However, it’s not mandatory to go for patent search but patent search is always highly recommended before you decide on a patent application filing.

Why should You Go for Patent Search?

Doing a patent search will enlighten you about the possibilities of getting grant for your patent application. Once the patent search is initiated, eventually the person who is performing the search will be illuminated whether the relevant conditions in order to get a patent grant are met or not. In order to get your patent application granted, your invention has to be ‘novel’ and ‘inventive’. Once you succeed in finding the closest prior arts, you can check these two criteria for your invention with respect to the search results.


In order to decide novelty, the invention is compared to one prior art reference at a time. Novelty is analyzed based on one prior art reference independently i.e. multiple references cannot be combined for novelty analysis.

For example, let’s assume the invention is a folding chair and two closest prior art references have been uncovered; one talks about a folding table and the other reference talks about a chair that can’t be folded. In such case, the invention will be considered novel as none of the prior arts are exactly alike the invention. The intention of checking novelty is to make sure that your invention has not already been envisioned by anyone else anywhere in the world i.e. it’s unique.

Inventive Step

The next and the most complicated patentability criterion is inventive step. Under this criterion, it is inspected that if the invention contains any advancement in the existing technology that can be anticipated by an ordinary person who is skillful in that field of technology. In the inventive step analysis, multiple prior art references can be combined to decide whether the invention is obvious or not.

For example, with respect to previously mentioned reference, if a person who is skilled in the art of building chairs, like a carpenter, is able to anticipate or build a folding chair by perceiving the folding design from the table and implement it to the chair, then the invention has no inventive step.

Once you meet above mentioned novelty and inventive step criteria, then your invention has the potential to get a patent grant.

How to do a patent search

You can do a patent search for your invention on your own using the existing free patent databases e.g. Google Patents. Generally, patent search can be carried out in two ways –Keyword Search and Classification Search. These are two strategies of search method, each giving rise to several similar prior art references. In many situations, intelligent use of keywords combined with classifications is the principal way to fetch appropriate prior art.

Keyword Search

In keyword search, specific words or phrases which covers the invention briefly are picked and prior arts are searched based on these words. These words are termed as Keywords, leading the nomenclature ‘keyword search’. Add these words in the given search column and you get peculiar results. However, keyword search will get you innumerable result sets, perhaps around 80 lakhs or more.

Classification search

In classification search, prior arts are found based on specific patent classifications. Again, what is patent classification? Let me familiarize you with this term. Patents are classified under several classes and subclasses based on their field of technology, and this makes a user to reach inventions similar to his/her invention easily.

Still curious about this classification process? Let me elaborate a little more. The IPC is the International Patent Classification, developed by World Intellectual Property Organization, has eight major patent classifications from section ‘A’ to section ‘H’ based on their field of technology. These classifications are used by over 90 countries to simplify patent organisation, they help in searching patents of all 90 countries at one shot instead of searching for each country.

The United States patent Classification or the USPTO has its own system of patent classification system called USPC. Likewise, the cooperative patent classification or CPC is another classification brought up by collaborative effort of US and European patent offices, it is actually the extension of IPC that has almost 2000 more subclasses. These subclasses allow you to be more specific while searching. If you can find the exact subclass which the invention belongs to, you have relatively less number of patents to look through.

Which Search Method Is Appropriate?

Keyword search method may look relatively easier initially as you don’t have to first find the respective classifications in which your invention falls. But there’s a high probability that keyword search alone won’t lend you in a situation where you can say you have gone through all the most similar prior arts. Suppose, you have done an exhaustive keyword search spending several days and still there might be a few uncovered prior arts that you didn’t come across in your search process. If combine both search strategies, the efficiency of the search process is intensified.

Let me make you clearer about this with a simple example with respect to Google patents database for the ease of understanding. Let’s consider, your invention is a new type of recording device. When you try finding patents using the keyword ‘recording device’ a total of 1, 55, 00,000 results appear.

patent search -keyword 1

Out of this huge number, some of them may not be even closer enough to be considered as a prior art. The reason is the keywords that have been entered don’t precisely tell what you are exactly looking for. If you give more information in terms of a broad key-string, that provides you better results making your search efficient.

For example, you can enter keywords like magnetic tape, loudspeaker diaphragm etc. to narrow your search with better results. When you input the keystring ‘recording device with magnetic tape’ , the number of results fetched is cut down to 41,50,000. Likewise, keystrings that contain adequate information about the invention,further minimizes the number of results obtained, providing you appropriate and reasonable results. You can see them below. One more interesting point to ponder is that the number of results obtained with the same keystring may vary because everyday, in some corner of the world, new patent applications are being filed.

patent search-keyword 2

patent search-keyword 3

patent search-keyword 4

On the other hand, people from different countries may term a recording device differently or use advanced technical terms. So, when you are searching for patents worldwide, you have to be aware of these subtle points as well.

To perform classification search, you should know the international class and subclass for each field of technology. Searching results under a classification may give you irrelevant results as well because the class covers all patents that are assigned to this particular class in a broader area. You may also note that sometimes one patent is assigned to more than one subclass. To sum up, searching with the help of classification is not a piece of cake. One has to be very clear and familiar with the international classes and subclasses for different technologies under which patents are categorized.

Other Patentability Conditions

Along with being ‘Novel’ and ‘Inventive’, there are other criteria that an invention MUST meet for the invention to be considered for a patent grant. In other words, the invention has to be scrutinized to know if it ‘stands fit’ for getting a patent grant or not.

The first step towards knowing the invention’s patentability conditions is by identifying “Patentable Subject Matter” to ensure that the invention or the concept doesn’t fall under any of the categories which are not considered as inventions. Indian Patent law provides a list of subject matter exclusions that states the types of inventions, technological domains or areas that cannot be patented. Suppose, you have spent hours searching for patents closer to your invention and then you realised it’s not even considered an invention as per patentability criteria. How would you feel? A total waste of time, right? So, it’s better to ensure that your invention doesn’t fall into the list of exclusions for patentable subject matter.

One more condition that should be fulfilled is “Utility”, it is a requirement under patent law that any invention can be granted patent protection only if the invention has some useful purpose. If the invention has no industrial application, going for a patent application technically makes no sense.

Once the invention meets all patentability criteria viz. subject matter, utility, novelty and inventive step leading to high chances of getting a patent grant, the next step is to prepare the Specification that describes the invention, in a standard format according to Indian Patent law.

Patent Databases

Patent databases in simple words may be defined as the storage of patents, where you can look for patents you want to view. Patent databases are provided by different publishers such as patent issuing offices, government agencies or regional authorities etc. Commercial publishers charge for access into their database. FPO IP Research & Communities, Espacenet, Patentscope-WIPO are some of the best patent databases that have the free access and provide worldwide published patents.

There is a free access patent database for each country, which contains patents of that particular country; e.g. USPTO (US), SIPO (China), EPO (Europe), InPASS (India) etc. Alternately there are paid databases such as Questel Orbit, Thomson Innovation and few others, which has more accurate and dependable data but the service is charged for access into it.

I hope now you have a clearer idea about patent search basics and can carry out patent search for your invention on your own. However, depending on a search performed by a person who is not professional searcher may turn out to be a matter of real risk. A professional will come out with closest prior arts in a more efficient way using paid patent databases. But doing your search on your own is always free, except the fact that you may have to spend couple of days.

Keep Inventing and Keep Protecting Your Invention By Patenting Them.

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