Everyone knows that Americans are natural-born inventors. We love to devise new ways to get things done, whether it be cutting the lawn, opening a jar or speeding across land, air or water. If you have ever come up with one of these ideas, your thoughts most likely turned to the next logical question, which is: " Has somebody else already thought of this?"
Why It Matters
In the U.S., if you are the first person to come up with an invention, you may very well be entitled to a patent on it. And if you get a patent on an invention, you will be granted a 17- to 20-year monopoly over its use. That monopoly, depending on how you make use of it, may give you new independence or even the ability to fulfill your life goals.
How can you find out whether someone else has beaten you to the punch (and even now may be cashing in on what you're already thinking of as your invention)? Probably the best way is to see whether or not it has ever been patented. Some great ideas have never received a patent, but most have. A quick spin through the patent database can give you a good head start on finding out just how innovative your invention is.
The Bad Old Days
Not too many years ago, there was no such thing as a quick spin through the patent database. A patent search required hiring a lawyer or professional patent searcher, at a cost of $500 or more--sometimes much more.
Few of us are willing to spend that type of money just to gratify our curiosity. So if you're like most people, you simply would have concluded that since you thought of it, other people had probably thought of it as well.
Free Online Searching
Thanks to the Internet, you no longer have to give up so easily. You can now do your own patent search in your spare time, with only a reasonable amount of effort. Even better, you can do it without spending more than a few dollars. If it turns out that your invention has never before been addressed in a patent, it may be that its time for a patent has come.
You can go online to find free access to patents issued since 1971. Both the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (the governmental entity that issues patents) and IBM provide free online databases. By simply typing in words that describe your invention, called keywords, you can search the front page of every patent issued since 1971. The front page includes the title of the invention and an abstract (a one-paragraph description of the invention), so if your keywords are good, you should turn up something if it's out there. If your idea involves technology that has arisen since 1971, you can perform a relatively thorough search this way.
Perhaps searching online isn't convenient for you. Or perhaps your idea involves something that is timeless (yet another way to core an apple, maybe), which means you need to search for patents issued before 1971. If a patent has ever been issued for your idea, whether last year or last century, then you will be barred from receiving a patent on it, and you'll have to go on to your next idea. Because the online databases only go back to 1971, you'll need another way to search for patents issued before then.
A great resource for complete patent searching--from the first patent ever issued to the latest--is a network of special libraries called Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs). Every state has at least one (Connecticut's are not yet operational). At a PTDL, you can perform computer searches of the PTO's electronic database for about $30 to $80 per hour. Additionally, patents can be searched for free on microfiche readers. These libraries are well-stocked not only with patent materials, but also with reference librarians who can be counted on to cheerfully help you use the library resources.