There are many patent search tools out there, and each one has its own search parameters. To get the most of out of your search, be sure to familiarize yourself with these tools.

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Patent Search Tips

When tackling a patent search on your own, look for tips on how to use your chosen patent search tool. For example, FreePatentsOnline includes a search tutorial with information about using wildcards, Boolean operators and other techniques to enhance your search. If you're searching at a public facility, ask the reference librarians for tips or attend a training session. After you're familiar with your search tools, use them as appropriate for the type of search you're working on.

A novelty search explores prior art, defined earlier in this article. Search results could include any patent or non-patent documents from any time period since there are no date constraints on what constitutes prior art. If you're doing a novelty search, focus on specific patent classifications and subclasses plus keyword searching [source: Patents.com, "Professional"].

A state-of-the-art search takes a broad look at what's being patented in a given field, providing a profile of the technological advancement in that field. As you would when doing a novelty search, include both active and expired patents and narrow your results with classifications and keywords. In addition, use a set of criteria to define your search and to identify results by their relevancy: For example, those that are most recent or that include some specific feature. As mentioned previously, this is the type of search that is most helpful to R & D groups as they design and develop products for a given field.

An infringement search looks for patents on a product or service for which someone already holds legal claim, either by an older patent or because the object was previously made and sold to the public. If you're doing an infringement search, focus on the details of the object or idea in question. Such searches often precede infringement lawsuits against the grantees of those newer patents [source: Cardinal IP].

A validity search seeks older patents for a given product or service that could invalidate a more recent patent. In contrast to an infringement search, a validity search might be prompted by the threat of a lawsuit from someone else. If you're doing a validity search, you may have more information available to narrow down your search, such as the names and locations of patent grantees.

Now that you have a better understanding of the challenges, costs and requirements of patent searches, you'll know what to do when genius strikes -- and in all sorts of patent-related scenarios.

Read on for even more information on staking a claim on your great new ideas.