An invention may be patentable if it is novel and non-obvious. The words “novel” and “ non-obvious” are legal terms that broadly mean unique. Smart inventors conduct prior art searches, sometimes called patent searches, to determine whether their invention is novel and non-obvious. Taking the time to perform this important step prevents the inventor from wasting money by trying to patent something that already exists. Moreover, familiarity with the prior art helps the inventor differentiate the invention from those that are very similar.
The cost of a patent search depends upon the technology involved and who is doing the search. If the invention is very complex, or if it involves an area that is relatively obscure, the cost of a patent search will be higher. For example, hundreds of patents exist to protect the different types of RAID systems used for storing information across a series of computer servers. Someone capable of distinguishing between these variants can command a substantial amount of money. Hiring a patent attorney to perform the search can cost $2,000 to $3,000. Other cut-rate services may be only several hundred dollars.
Doing It Yourself
Conducting your own patent search can save thousands of dollars. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office maintains a database that allows you to enter specific terms or combinations of terms. You can also search this database by entering the name of the inventor or the assignee. One problem presented by searching this way is that elements of an invention can be described many ways. For example, a light bulb can be described as a means for generating light. Trying to search under all possible terms requires an intimate familiarity with patent jargon.
If you conduct your own search, you may run into dead ends. For example, you may be overwhelmed with the number of irrelevant patents that are associated with a particular search term. Conversely, the search terms you use may not yield any information at all. One strategy is to search by entering the name of your competition in the assignee field. Or you can search for the name of the chief technology officer of a competitor. This strategy is particularly helpful in fields dominated by a small number of companies. Conducting this kind of targeted search can save time and money.
You can also forgo conducting a search altogether. The USPTO always performs a search when reviewing the application. A few of the search results are presented to the inventor if the patent office objects to the application or rejects it all together. This approach is not cost- or time-effective because the search results are not complete and the inventor must pay, at a minimum, the full cost of filing the patent application, which ranges from $190 to $380. Since the USPTO 's search is not focused on helping you draft your patent application with respect to distinguishing your invention from those that are already known, it is usually not helpful.
Shelly Morgan has been writing and editing for over 25 years for various medical and scientific publications. Although she began her professional career in pharmacological research, Morgan turned to patent law where she specialized in prosecuting patents for medical devices. She also writes about renal disease and hypertension for several nonprofits aimed at educating and supporting kidney patients.