Developing your intellectual property into a viable business opportunity is a complex proposition! In this series of posts, Porticos co-founder and President, Greg Patterson shares his insights on navigating the process. First written ten years ago, these posts revisit (and update) Greg’s original content for a new decade of product development.
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So you have a great idea. Now you are ready to patent your idea to protect your future fortune, or maybe just start making the product. Human beings have been wandering around the face of the earth for a long time now, improving their world all the way. So the chances of you truly being the first and only one to come up with a completely unique idea are pretty slim. If you want to avoid future heartache, or worse yet, investing money into something only to discover the idea already exists, then you need to search exhaustively, and then look again.
Before I decide to spend money on a patent attorney, I first go to the United States Patent and Trademark Office site to make sure there is nothing obvious out there that looks like my idea. This is a free website where you can search from nearly the entire list of patents that have been granted. Start with the “Find it Fast” button on the right in the main menu. If you get stuck, the site has online help to answer most of your search questions; it’s pretty simple once you get used to it.
That said, you must have patience. Like any search, there are many keywords and search methods that you can and should utilize. Take your time and try them all. Look at the patents that come up as hits and print off or note the ones that seem closest to your idea. Also, look for the patents that were cited as prior art in these disclosures and review those in detail. Basically what you will end up with is a long thread of patents that cite earlier patents, etc.
The chance of typing in a keyword and not getting any hits is very low. If it does happen, then you probably didn’t do a good job of picking a relevant keyword. This process can take many hours, even days, but the information will be invaluable as you determine the breadth of the claim(s) your idea has. Plus it is good data to take to your patent attorney when the time comes to get them involved.
The next thing you should do is an internet search to look for “prior art.” Without getting into the full legal meaning of the term “prior art,” we can sum it up by saying that if you find a public record of some idea close to yours, this previous public disclosure of the idea can prevent you from making patent claims, or severely narrow the claims you can make. The advent of the internet age has definitely made this a much simpler task but it’s still one of those things that folks just don’t seem to want to do. It’s a lot more fun to work through the details of your invention than to spend time in front of the tube searching through an endless number of Google hits.
In this broader prior art search, you will be looking for written documentation or for products that are already on the market. Once the idea becomes public knowledge, either by publishing a description of the idea or by selling a product embodying the idea, all others are prevented from patenting that idea as their own, regardless of whether or not the idea was previously patented.
Another good source is company (or university) websites that are focused on the industry your invention is in. This is especially true if your idea isn’t really a product as much as it is a component in a product or software, etc. Searching these sites will give you a good understanding of what’s out there and where to look next.
Finally, search some of the design company sites (like porticos.net) and look at their portfolio sections. These companies often develop products for a wide range of customers, some big clients that you would have heard of and some small clients that you might not have. Since their portfolio sections are often a key source of marketing, they are typically eager to show their list of accomplishments so you can see what they’ve done before. Again, consider the threads that these may lead to. For example, you might see a product that isn’t exactly like what you were thinking, but it might give you another company name to search by to see if they have other products that more closely apply to your idea.
All of this work you have put into a “preliminary” prior art search, does not negate the need for a true prior art search made by a reputable patent attorney. I’m not talking about one of the infomercials that say for $59.99 you will get a packet that has all you need to know to get rich off your idea. I mean a real patent attorney who is familiar with your specific area of expertise. While you can easily and inexpensively file your own patent claim, keep in mind that the patent process can be a long and complicated one. The quality with which it is done goes a long way in determining the application’s success and the eventual patent’s value. There are only so many hours in a day, so focus on your strengths and let others do the same. If you truly believe you have a novel and valuable idea, you will be doing yourself a huge favor by paying someone with the right experience to help you protect it properly.
These two simple steps “Look” (searching the USPTO site), and “Look Again” (additional internet searches) can save you much heartache down the road. I think you will be amazed at the “near misses” that you will encounter during your searches. Look at them objectively (or have a colleague look them over) then proceed accordingly.
So, until next time, have fun searching the internet highway, and when you think you’ve searched under every stone… look again.