The first step in getting a patent for your invention (or determining if you even qualify for one) is finding out if someone else already has a patent for your idea. If your invention is already patented, then you are out of luck. The quickest and easiest way to find out is to do an online patent search. (For more information on getting a patent, see Nolo's article Getting a Patent on Your Own.)
Why It Matters
In the United States, if you are the first person to come up with an invention, it may be patentable. When you get a patent, you get a monopoly over its use that lasts 20 years from the date of your patent application (approximately 17-18 years). That monopoly, depending on how you make use of it, may lead to financial rewards. (To learn more about the criteria for patenting your invention, see Nolo's Qualifying for a Patent FAQ.)
Not too many years ago, a patent search required hiring a lawyer or professional patent searcher at a cost of $500 or more -- sometimes much more. The expense discouraged many inventors from doing a patent search.
Online Patent Searches
Thanks to the Internet, you can now do your own patent search in your spare time, with minimal effort and cost.
U.S. Patent & Trademark Office
You can search the texts or claims of patents for free at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) at www.uspto.gov. With the USPTO's system you can:
search U.S. patents back to 1976
search U.S. patent applications back to March 2001 (when they were first published), and
make bibliographic searches -- for example, to find out the name, title of invention, or patent number -- of patents from 1790 to the present.
You can easily and quickly download, view, and print the images of any patent before 1976 at the USPTO's website. For example, with broadband Internet service, you can view and print the images of a ten-page patent in less than two minutes! Everything is free on the USPTO's website, except for orders of patents to be sent by mail.
Another free patent website is Google Patents (www.google.com/patents), an excellent resource that includes text-searchable U.S patents that date back to the 1790s (the beginning of the U.S. patent system). This is more than the USPTO offers since many older USPTO patents are not text-searchable. Many patent searchers find the Google site to be more thorough and easier to use than the USPTO's site.
Fee-based Patent Searching Companies
There are several fee-based patent searching companies:
Delphion. You can search U.S. patents and perform patent number searching of worldwide collections for a fee with Delphion at www.delphion.com.
Thomson-Reuters Patent Web. Another fee-based company, Thomson-Reuters Patentweb (http://scientific.thomsonreuters.com/products/patentweb), uses optical character recognition (OCR) to incorporate the data from all patents into its data bank.
PatentMax. PatentMax (www.patentmax.com) permits batch downloading.
PatBase. PatBase (www.patbase.com) is a database that can search many nations' patents back to the 1800s and permits batch downloading.
Keep in mind that if you don't have Internet access at home or work, many public libraries offer free online access and instructions on using it.
ONLINE PATENT SEARCHING
Delphion Intellectual Property Network: www.delphion.com
Thomson-Reuters PatentWeb: http://scientific.thomsonreuters.com/products/patentweb
Offline Patent Searches
Perhaps searching online isn't convenient for you. Or perhaps your idea involves something that is timeless, which means you need to search for old patents -- before 1976.
A great resource for complete patent searching -- from the first patent ever issued to the latest -- is a network of special libraries called Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs). These libraries are well-stocked -- not only with patent materials, but also with reference librarians who will guide you through the patent search process. Every state has at least one; the USPTO maintains an up-to-date list of contact information for all PTDLs at www.uspto.gov/go/ptdl.