Patent Searching an Effective Tool for Competitive Intelligence

By Vinod Singh

A lot of valuable information is now available of the industries in different databases in the web. Among all those patents the most important and easily available. Patent searching can give insights into the state of the art across any technical field. It can provide a platform to monitor the competitors activities by revealing which companies are involved in a field of technology of your interest. Patent searching data can also reveal the technological road map to a particular invention, the science or logic behind the invention, and its intended application.

However the legal nature of patents makes them an uncompromisingly formal style. They are written in a language sometimes so abstruse that it does more to obscure the nature of the invention than to elucidate it. Also the millions of patents exited are distributed across different databases and in each case coded and grouped according to one of several classification systems. The family patent information is also varied from various databases.

The skilled patent search requires in-depth knowledge of an array of software tools, search commands, searching techniques and classification systems. That’s why patent searching is an expert's job. In the recent few years the demand for a professional patent searcher has increased.

Main benefits of free-access Web databases are that they provide a low-cost means of doing initial background searches. The problem is that they suffer serious drawbacks for more crucial searches. For example: free databases generally come from the patent issuing authorities (usually national patent offices) so their content is restricted to those patents granted by that particular authority. There is no universal structure, so the same fields may not necessarily be searchable across different databases. There is no 'added value' - such as readable abstracts in plain English, which has given patent information-provider Thomson Derwent its enviable reputation. There are rarely any patent analysis technologies. And they do not provide the option of sophisticated, command driven, Boolean searches as offered by powerful tools from host companies such as Dialog, Delphion, Questel-Orbit, MicoPat and STN - which also allow parallel searches across several (commercial and free) databases at once.

More importantly, a quick and easy search on a free site is extremely unlikely to uncover 'stealth patents' or “hidden patents”- one of the latest IP protection tricks. The authors of these patents deliberately choose obfuscating keywords and try to have their patents inappropriately classified in order that others' searches do not throw them up. Whereas commercial patent database providers provide access to patent collections throughout the world, along with value-added patent information, various analytical tools and other technologies. A number of these commercial providers have recently released innovative new functionalities alongside the search function

Why Conduct a Patent Search?

A. Patent searches are conducted for many purposes. Among them are to:

1. Determine if a particular invention is unique
2. Identify potential features for new product
3. Identify other possible uses for a new product
4. Determine independent inventors or companies currently or historically obtaining patents in a particular area
5. Find the patent(s) for a particular invention
6. Determine the state of the art in a particular area
7. Identify patents in a specific field for generating citation maps (a tool in determining the relative importance/value of a specific invention
8. Study the rate of innovation in a particular area
9. Determine the patent portfolio of a specific company
10. Determine if an invention infringes upon the intellectual property rights of others
11. Learn about an industry or a specific company
12. Search for potential solutions to design or safety problems
13. Identify potential licensees
14. To identify additional reference materials (journal articles, books, product literature) of use to those working in this area. Patents often list printed reference materials.
15. Identify inventors working in a certain field.

Patent search Procedure:

A. The Steps

1. Search the web to get the up to date information about the area of work and select the specific keywords describing the area of interest and identify the control patents. To start with by searching for any specific patents be aware of in this area, patents of companies work in this field, patents invented by inventors in this field, etc. This step is called “shoot from the tip”.

2. Try a few relevant words in the word search engine and see what turns up. If turned up any patents in the "shoot from the hip" step above, examine them for possible search words. Record the search words on a page in a project notebook and add other words as they come to mind or encounter them in other patents. Usually the word list becomes separated into groups of words covering different aspects of the invention.

3. Access the Classification Index. In paper it is about the size of a small town phone book. Look up your topic and you will find a class number. The area you are interested in may have several class numbers (for example marine propulsion and propellers (impellers) are in two different classes).

4. Access the Manual of Classification (in paper it is a large 3 volume set of ring binders). Turn to or click to the class you are interested in and identify the specific subclass's best relating to your topic. You may need some assistance in understanding the hierarchial listing of subclasses. Many are subclasses of subclasses.

5. Access the Classification Definitions. It used to be on microfiche, but now you can access it online. Look up the specific class and subclass under study. Make sure you are really hunting for items resembling the definition of this class/subclass. Often additional hints are given for other places to look, including classes no longer existing.

6. Keep cycling through the three tools (Classification Index, Manual of Classification and Classification Definitions) until you identify the appropriate classes and subclasses.

7. Search the database to identify patents in the classes/subclasses identified.

8. Examine the ABSTRACT & IMAGE of these patents to identify those resembling your device. Make copies of the drawings, abstract and description of patents closely resembling your invention and of inventions serving the same purpose.

After completing Steps 1 to 7, examine the patents for:

a. Companies frequently appearing as assignees (patents assigned to them). Search for other patents assigned to these companies in an attempt to identify more patents in the area of interest.

b. Inventors frequently appearing on the patents (both independents and those working for companies). Search for other patents listing these individuals as inventors in an attempt to identify more patents in the area of interest.

c. Look for words and combinations of words in the patents of interest. Sort the words into groups. Some will describe one aspect of the invention and some will describe another. Record the search words on the list started earlier. Search for other patents containing these words in an attempt to identify more patents in the area of interest. Be aware of what portion of the patent you are searching (some search abstract only, front page only, full texts).

d. Examine the patents cited as reference by the patents of interest to see if some of them are of interest as well.

e. Examine the class and subclass info of the patents of interest in an attempt to identify other classes and subclasses that may contain patents of interest. Search these new classes/subclasses for additional patents of interest.

9. Keep cycling through steps 1 to 8 over and over until no more patents of interest are identified.


The patent search has become an effective tool for the mining of the patent data, which help in the competitive analysis. A throughout knowledge of the different patent database, their classification system is required for a in depth patent search. Patent search is crucial for the patentability, validity, infringement analysis etc. Thus a skilled patent search professional must know the various search procedures, databases limitations and technical tools and software to reveal a good search result.

Vinod Kumar Singh
Knowledge Scientist

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