A patent only protects an idea if it is new. The only way to know whether an idea is new is to sift through existing inventions to make sure the idea hasn’t already been thought up. The process is a little complicated, but I'll walk you through it step-by-step.

I learnt the basics by attending several weeks of free intellectual property workshops in the British Library. This post will condense everything I learnt.

The sum total of all technical knowledge in any given field is known as prior art. Anything, from a picture in a magazine to a poster in the background of a movie can be used as evidence of prior art.

If your idea exists in prior art then it means your idea is not new and thus cannot be protected.

Searching Google is the simplest way to check prior art. Google Images and Google Products are a good place to start (there a link to Google products at the bottom of the post). If google doesn’t yield any results, the next step is to check through existing patents.

Unfortunately, patents are not recorded on a universal database. Doing a preliminary patent search will involve checking the International, European and American databases. These three databases cover the bulk of patent applications.

If you have money to spend, commercial databases are more specific, up-to-date, offer greater flexibility, and have more sophisticated search techniques.

On the other hand, free databases are free.

How to use Espacenet

Espacenet is a free database that covers most International and European patents. A Quick Search allows you to check patents from over 80 countries that date back as far as the 1970’s (link to quick search at the bottom of the post).

When performing a search it is useful to be aware of the following:

  • You can use the * symbol to truncate a word. If you type “sharp*" in the search box then it will search for sharpener, sharps, sharpening, and any other word that begins with “sharp".

  • If you use the # symbol then you can randomize one letter. Typing “b#d" would come up with bad, bed, bid, etc.

  • You can also use “?" to search for plurals. Typing “handbag?" will search for handbag and handbags.

The following demonstration should explain how to use Espacenet.

  1. I have a new idea for a handbag. I’m not sure of the idea is new so I do a Quick Search with the keyword “handbag?".

  2. The search for “handbag?" produces 3895 results.

  3. Clicking on the first result opens up a new page with specific information about a particular Patent. A useful bit of information is the classification code. The European classification code tells you what category the patent is classified under.

  4. Click on the first classification number and it will open up a new page. This page shows you the subcategory to which the patent belongs. In this case, the patent is in the category of “Details and Accessories" which belongs to the larger group of “Purses, luggage and hand carried bags". The subcategory of “ details and accessories" is further divided into “Protective covers". Click on the little box beside the classification for “Purses, luggage and hand carried bags" and then press “copy at the bottom of the page.

  5. An advanced search page will open up. Your classification will already be copied into the appropriate search field. All you have to do is click on the search button and the following page will tell you how many patents exist in that category. If you use the advanced search fields you can then narrow your search to sift through a particular category. This kind of search allows you to appreciate the landscape of inventions in any field of invention.

If you would like a more in-depth explanation of how Espacenet works I suggest reading through their user’s guide.

If a patent does not have a European classification then you cannot search through categories in this way.

Most Patents will have an abstract that summarizes what the invention is and how it works. Some Patents will have an American “Application Number" (which start with the letters US), if this is the case then you can copy and paste the number into Google Patents and it will show you the patent.

Be aware that the word ‘patent’ is used to describe designs (design patents) and patents (utility patents) in America. The advanced search option allows you to distinguish between the two.

When conducting your own patent search it is important to remember that finding no evidence does not mean that your idea is new. It just means that your search didn’t yield any results.

The only way to know, conclusively, if an idea is patentable is to apply for a patent. When you apply for a patent you pay for a comprehensive search. This process takes a long time. If a preliminary search yields results then it saves you the time and money of a comprehensive search.

If you have performed a preliminary search but would like a more in depth analysis before you proceed with your application than you can pay someone to do a commercial search (you can either approach a patent lawyer or, for a more competitive price, I recommend speaking to the IP team at the British Library).

I would recommend using the information in this post to do a preliminary search before you approach a patent lawyer so that you can present them with some information to get the ball rolling.

If you have a list of similar inventions or concepts that overlap with your idea then they have something to do; Otherwise you are just paying an extraordinary rate for someone else to do what this post just showed you how to do.

Google Products

International Patent Database

Google Patents

Espacenet quick search

Espacenet user guide