If you have watched the video on How to Invent, you know that determining the technology that already exists is a crucial step in any inventive process. After all, you are supposed to invent something new, aren´t you?
And how do you determine prior art? You search!
Search for what? Any document counts. As long as it is public. It may even be hard to access, for instance, it is only available in a single library, as long as its access is not restricted, but available to the public. Its access may even be paid. Public does not mean free.
It may a non patentary document such as scientific articles, books, Congress´s summaries and communications. PhD and Master´s thesis... It may also be a patent document. Both a patent application, in which the inventor seeks protection for everything he has invented or the patent document per se which are usually leaner documents.
All these together is known as Prior Art.
There are inumerous ways of searching, from the simpler and free to very complicated and expensive ones! I often say we shall begin by the simpler and less expensive. If we find what we are looking for, we already get stared without having spent time and money.
The simpler way of searching nowadays is Google. Obvious, isn´t? Not that much. Because it is not that common everyday Google. But a specific platform designed for patents. It´s called Google Patents.
There, you can find patent documents and, if you select Google Scholar for a joint search, you can also find non-patent literature. The best: for free!
Usually, I like to start from the simpler; so, I often begin with key words. This way of searching has an issue, that is the language. I always use English. But, although it´s common that the documents also have an English summary, that´s not an obligatory rule, so that your keyword search may leave some important piece of information outside. Keep this in mind.
Here, there´s an example. Suppose you wish to search documents on Mad Cow Disease, so you can type on the Google Patents the text: “bovine spongiform encephalopathy”.
A second way of searching, and the most commonly used by patent specialists is to search by the patent classification. What is that? Each patent document around the world receives one or more codes according the technology of its content. The main advantage of searching by the class codes is that it doesn´t matter the language in which the document was written, either Russian or Chinese, the classification will be the same.
There are two important classificaiton systems, the CPC and the International Patent Classification, known as IPC. By clicking in the links, you can find out what is the classification for the technology you are interested in. There are areas in which the classifications can be very specific generating very precise searches in return.
See bellow the search result when you use the code G01N2800/2828 that stands for documents about Prion diseases, the group in which the Mad Cow Disease is in.
You may also combine different classifications, different keywords or both strategies in order to refine your search.
If your invention envolves a nucleotide or an aminoacid sequence, you may employ them in your search. Blast is a very well known tool for those who work in the Molecular Biology field; what´s not as known is that it also has a specific database for patents, circled in red in the following picture.
This tool allows you to find patent documents that describe specific nucleic acids or amino acid sequences.
There are also paid Databases. Derwent, for example, contains patent document summaries from over 40 countries and international organisms. Those in Brazil who have been granted access to Portal Periódicos Capes, a specific brazilian tool, may, also, access Derwent Database for free.
The Patent Offices also make it avaiable searches in its Databases: United States, Europe, and even Brazil, Japan even translates the document into English.
It is not the intention here to exhaust the subject "Search"; the activity of searching can be very complicated. You may search, search, search... and not finding anything! And not even after that you can assume that something doesn´t exist! You can just say it hasn´t been found.
It´s the old black swan story: "all the swans we have seen are white and, so, all the swans are white", until, obviously, you find a black swan!
Therefore, a search can never be exhaustive. Eventually, if you really want to patent something, it´s highly recommended to hire a patent search specialist. After all, it´s likely that the specialist´s search be more exhaustive than yours!
The most important here is to show you that it´s possible to find a lot of information on technology, for free, by a simple internet search. You may use this information to copy an invention in your lab or as basis for your own invention.
And for you, who is not familiar with a patent document, what you are going to find in your search in a document similar to this:
It contains a title, a summary, a description, all the experimental results, besides all the practical informations: if it has been already granted or if it is jus an application; who owns the technology - if you wish to contact in order to obtain a license - or the application date, which is the date from which, usually, the rights begin to be counted. So, you can spend quite a time exploring the huge amount of information available!
Many people let to search just before patenting. However, the ideal is to make a good search in the beginning of the process and, along the invention, redo the search periodically. That´s why it is very important that the inventor has at least a notion on how to make a good home-made search. Even not to blindly trust the service provider.
In summary, patent databases are an excellent source on technology information. They offer public information that is available for free in the internet. Searching this information is essential for those who want to deal with innovation in order to reinvent something already invented before. However, keep in mind that a search can never be exhaustive, not even a professional one. The goal of this post was simple: to teach you that there might always be a black swan over there waiting to be found; thus, search always!