You have an amazing,  earth-shattering idea; an ingenious way to solve an old problem, or a groundbreaking new technology.

Of course, you can't patent an idea. But as soon as you've fleshed it out to the point your idea is a viable invention, you'll want to begin the process of making a patent application.

As a critical first step, you need to be sure your idea is unique--that there isn't already a patent. You need to learn how to conduct a patent search.

If you have the funding behind you, your best choice is always going to be to hire a qualified patent attorney. A professional skilled in patent research will cost you thousands, but could ultimately save your bacon.

Let's assume you're just getting started and don't yet have financial backers or personal savings to fund your patent search. You can still get started and whether you complete the patent application on your own or just treat your initial findings as preliminary research, there are plenty of free tools to help you on your way.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Start with Google Patent Search.

I like Google's Patent Search engine as a starting point, but by no means should this be the only research you do. It offers you fields like Patent Office, Filing Status, Patent Type, and Filing Date (and lets you sort results by different parameters, too) but is pretty limited when you compare it to some other engines.

For that reason, it's a decent starting place for a broad patent search. If you immediately find a patent for your invention, well... back to the drawing board. At least you aren't out anything but time. Google Patent Search is also a great tool for historical searches.

If this doesn't turn anything up, keep digging.

Conduct a United States Patent and Trademark Office Search.

Your next stop is going to be the USPTO. If it's your first time at the patent application rodeo, invest some time in their excellent learning resources.

How to Conduct a Preliminary U.S. Patent Search is a completely  free online course that should take you about 38 minutes to complete.

Now you're ready to dive right into the USPTO search engine. Before you get started, it's important to define what it is you're even looking for.

How would you--or someone else--describe your invention?

What terms would people use to describe the way it looks, how it functions, and the materials it's made of?

Think of how to search a patent from different perspectives. How would an artistic person describe your invention? What about an engineer? The Google AdWords Keyword Tool, while designed to surface PPC search terms, can suggest to you alternative terms people might use to describe your idea.

Brainstorming the various terms and phrases people might use to describe a product like yours will increase your chances of finding a hit in your search, should one exist.

Next, use USPTO's 7 Step U.S. Patent Search Strategy Guide to work your way through a comprehensive search on their site.

If you haven't found anything by now, double check against the Free Patents Online database.

Use Other Patent Research Tools to Verify Your Findings

Free Patents Online and Patent Monk are good places to run your searches for prior art, as is Espacenet, which is run by the European Patent Office.

Right, about that...

There's a great, big world out there, and once you're reasonably certain you've exhausted your U.S. patent research options, it's time to seriously consider bringing in the pros. You're probably going to want to have someone with experience searching international patents on your side, to make sure your bases are covered.

If you're not sure where to go next, contact a Patent and Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) near you. Its workers cannot offer legal advice, but they offer access to helpful patent search resources including local patent attorney directories, classes on intellectual property, assistance on how to conduct a patent search from decades ago, and more. Click here to see PTRC listings by state.

There are plenty of people and resources out there to help you as you learn how to patent an idea. If you want to carry on and continue on your own, you'll want to read my guide How to File a Patent in 8 Easy Steps next.