Patent Searching – what is it and how can it help you?

Patent Searching

Every year, hundreds of thousands of patent applications are published globally and, as a searchable collection, published patent specifications hold a wealth of commercially-useful, as well as scientifically-valuable, information. Whether you want to find out if your own invention is potentially patentable, or if your new product might infringe someone else’s patent rights, or if you just want to find out what your competitors are up to in your technical space, patent searching can be a hugely valuable tool.

The term ‘patent searching’ covers a number of different types of searching, and the type you need depends on what you want to achieve.  There are main types of patent searches, namely:

  • Patentability searches
  • FTO or infringement searches
  • Patent landscape searches

Patentability searches

In order to be patentable, an invention must have at least one novel technical feature that is not an ‘obvious’ modification of whatever has been done before.  These criteria are assessed against everything that has ever been published (or made public) anywhere in the world.  If you want to assess whether or not you could secure patent protection for your invention, we often recommend having a patentability search performed.  The search is focused on the main features of your invention (the ones we think might be novel) and usually returns a result in the form of a set of patent documents describing earlier ideas in the same field so that we can assess whether or not your invention meets the requirements for patentability.

FTO or infringement searches

FTO (Freedom To Operate) or infringement searches are used to determine if commercialising your new product or process is likely to infringe someone else’s patent rights.  These types of searches are usually broader than patentability searches, and they are also territorial, which means that a search needs to be performed in each country where you plan to commercialise your product.  For these reasons, FTO searches tend to be somewhat more expensive than patentability searches, especially as, in most countries, the results are (legally) worth very little without a local attorney’s opinion on whether or not your commercial activity would infringe the patent rights found in the search.

Landscape Searches

Landscape searches tend to focus on particular technical fields and use a large set of relevant patents to extract key information about a particular technical field.  For example, what companies are most active in that field?  Who are the main inventors? What is the geographical distribution of innovation in that field?  What particular technical areas are most ‘crowded’ in terms of research and development, and are there any gaps? And much more.

Patent Searching as a design tool

Another valuable use for patent searching is as a design tool.  For example, if you are trying to solve  a particular problem in your own R&D, you can use patent searching to see if anyone else has come up with a solution to the same problem, which (if they have) could save you re-inventing the wheel!  For this type of searching, you can use one of the free online searching platforms, such as Espacenet – patent search and use keywords (and other parameters) to find what you are looking for.

A word of warning

Patent searching can never be considered to be 100% comprehensive and complete, and there are a number of reasons for that.  Firstly, especially with keyword searching, spelling and translation mistakes in the documents can result in relevant documents being missed because the keywords you have used don’t match.  Also, patent applications are not published until 18 months after they are filed, so any applications filed less than 18 months before the search is performed will not be found.  This is a particular drawback when it comes to emerging technologies, as most of the applications in those types of fields will have been filed relatively recently.

Need Help?

We would always recommend that you use a professional search company and an attorney to perform (at least) patentability and FTO searches  so that the search strategy can be properly formulated and a legal analysis of the results performed.

If you need help with a patent search, or have any other burning IP issues, please book a free initial consultation by emailing or visit our website at

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