Patents are useful documents and there are lots of free sources out there that you can use to search them. A recent article in Sensors Magazine by a European Patent Office (EPO) patent examiner, provides a good introduction to using the Espacenet patent database, which is one of the best free resources out there.
The article also begins by explaining why people search patent databases and what sort of information you can gather from patents. If you’re unfamiliar with patents you may find a whole new world opening up before you!
There is an art to patent searching, which can range from quick and simple, eg. looking up a specific patent number, or an assignee (the organisation to which the patent is assigned) to highly complex prior art searches with long strings of search terms combined with indexing codes and other parameters.
Prior art searches can be quite fun (fun = dangerous word to use with regard to patents) in that, if you come up with an idea which you think might be a new (or “novel” as they say) invention, one way of checking whether it really is new is to run a patent search to find out if your particular invention has already been thought of by someone else by seeing if there’s patent for it – or whether the way is clear and you’ve actually managed to come up with a shiny new idea. This is one of the tasks that patent specialists (lawyers, examiners, etc.) carry out, but it’s always worth having a go yourself first, before committing any money.
The Sensors Magazine article will help you to get started, whatever type of search you’d like to do.
Patents can also be quite entertaining. There are some famously funny and ridiculous ones. Part of the reason for this is that many patents are purposefully written to be obscure as this makes them harder to find. They are obliged to contain particular information, but patent scribes have become canny with the language they use. This makes playing the “prior art searching game” far from easy!
To see what I mean, pay a visit to IPWatchdog’s Museum of Obscure Patents for a glorious selection of the weird and to be frank, not so wonderful, patents that have made it past the examiners. Poor examiners, sometimes I feel quite sorry for them.