Sorting through massive patent databases can be a pain.

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Challenges of a Patent Search

In June 2010, Google and the United States Patent and Trademark Office announced a two-year agreement in which Google would make about 10 terabytes of bulk patent and trademark data available online for free. This partnership was part of a larger effort known as the Open Government Initiative, spearheaded by President Barack Obama.

The USPTO has been offering free patent data online for years, but some patent information wasn't accessible to the public or entailed large fees for processing bulk files. Now, thanks to the Google-USPTO partnership, huge amounts of patent data are available online through Google Patents at no cost -- and in a much more accessible format. Privately run Web sites, some of which have also provided free patent search tools for years, now have more resources to work with and have come up with even more innovative ways for users to search and retrieve patent data.

These new search options help address two of the biggest challenges of patent searching:

  • Filtering a large volume of data -- You can narrow down the search significantly if you're looking for a design or plant patent, but most searches are utility searches (the most common type) and involve sorting through massive amounts of data. Electronic records (text and drawings) go back to 1976, and electronic scans include patent documents going back to 1790 [source: USPTO, "Search"].
  • Reading patent documents -- Even after you narrow down the data with keywords and subclasses, you still have to wade through verbose descriptions in each patent you find. In addition, descriptions may be barely distinguishable between patents of similar objects.

Each patent search Web site has its own approach to searching and retrieving patent data and presenting the results to you. Google Patents uses the same search technology behind Google Book Search [source: Google Patents]. FreePatentsOnline has improved the search algorithms to find concepts, not just keywords, and it offers tutorials to educate the novice researcher about patents and patent searching. Some sites offer extra features, too, such as access to international patent data, an RSS feed of the latest patent applications and quick links to the latest patents in certain classifications [source: Patents.com, "Home,", PatentStorm].

Even with all the features available in patent search engines, you'll still need time and expertise to meet patent search challenges and obtain comprehensive results. One option is to go to a public search facility such as the USPTO's Public Search Facility in Virginia. Or you could visit a special, regional patent library called a Patent and Trademark Depository Library (PTDL)  in your area. These special facilities offer a wealth of online and offline patent search resources and staff members who can teach you how to use them.

When you don't have time to conduct your own search or you're uncertain about your level of expertise, professional services can help.