Studying the marketplace is a critical step of the product development process. The only way to invent an improvement to an existing product that offers a benefit consumers desire and are willing to pay for is to truly understand and have analyzed the landscape of the category. Is the category stale? Is it crowded? Where are there opportunities for innovation? How can you make something faster, cheaper, easier to use, or greener?

There are a number of different ways to study a marketplace. An important one is surveying the relevant intellectual property. To effectively promote your innovation, you will need to identify its unique point of difference. Understanding what has already been filed will help you do that. It will also help you determine whether or not to file IP yourself.

Last week I wrote about how few new ideas there really are. When you search for prior art, there's a good chance you will discover your innovation has already been patented. In fact, I can almost guarantee it. I want you to understand that discovering whether or not your innovation has already been patented is not why you're digging through prior art, though. If your innovation has been patented, but doesn't exist on the marketplace, you need to understand why. That's why what you're really after is knowledge. I don't want to end up wasting money because I haven't done my homework.

There are a lot of great tutorials available about how to search for prior art, like the United States Patent and Trademark Office's. I know of local libraries that teach classes on patent searching. You can search for patents on the USPTO's website, but I do not find it to be as user-friendly Google Patents. I've been doing my searching on Google Patents for a long time now. But just recently, my friend, inventor Jared Joyce, introduced me to Patent Monk, which looks absolutely fantastic. I strongly recommend you take a look around the site.

Digging through prior art can be mind-numbingly dull. But like anything else, the more you do it, the better at it you will become. As you search through prior art, these are the five things I want you to keep in mind.

1. At the end of the day, no matter how much research you do, you will never be able to find everything. And that's OK. Hiring a firm to help you won't make a difference, because it won't find everything either. There's simply too much. That having been said, hiring a firm to help you isn't a bad idea, but I strongly believe you should learn how to search for prior art as well. You're really covering all of your bases if you do both. The moral of this story is, don't get caught up endlessly searching for prior art. It's not a good use of your time. Your goal isn't to be as meticulous as possible; it's to gain an understanding.

2. The mindset you want to have is: A lot of prior art is junk. So many people come up with an idea and run to a patent attorney first. Selling fear is easy. People assume that being issued a patent means they will be successful. It doesn't, not at all. The USPTO is littered with patents that don't make sense. The more patents you read, the more this will ring true.

3. You are going to find your idea. That's perfectly fine. You want to find something like your idea! Yes, you may feel a bit shocked. I remember the feeling well. But finding similar prior art shouldn't upset you, because it actually gives you a road map of what you need to do next. If you discover a patent that describes an innovation that is exactly like yours, and it's written well (meaning broadly, clearly, and defensively), then you may decide to walk away right then and there. If the patent isn't written well and/or doesn't cover its bases, think about how you can differentiate your innovation from it. I always tell my students to look for claims about manufacturing methods. Many inventors do not take into account manufacturing whatsoever when they file a patent.

4. Examining the drawings first will save you time. When you enter in your search terms, a plethora of patents will appear. If you look at the drawings first, you will be able to quickly determine whether the patent is relevant to your interests. After you've examined the drawings, read the patent's abstract to give you an overview of its claims.

5. You must read the claims section thoroughly. What is being argued? You need to understand. Did the inventor box himself or herself in? Is anything missing? A good patent is written in such a way that anyone can grasp its meaning. Don't be daunted. You do not have to be a lawyer to do this. After you read several of them, you will get used to the jargon.

The best advice I can give you is to always think about what's marketable first. Anyone can come up with a patentable feature; the high number of patents issued each year is testament to that. Don't come up with a patentable feature just to patent something--think instead about how you can make a product better.