How to Search for a Patent

A patent search is the process of combing through existing patents and patent applications to determine if a particular invention or idea has already been patented. 

Conducting this search is crucial for inventors who are considering patenting their own invention. It helps ensure originality and prevents wasted efforts on patenting something that already exists. 

More significantly, a thorough patent search is a foundation for innovation. It enables inventors to build upon prior art, enhancing their own inventions while respecting the intellectual property rights of others. Understanding how to perform a patent search is an invaluable skill for anyone entering the realm of inventing.

Understanding Patent Databases

The world of patents is vast, and navigating through it requires familiarity with various databases.

  • USPTO: The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the primary hub for all patent-related activities in the US. Its database provides access to granted patents and published patent applications. The search tools available on the USPTO website are powerful, though they can require some practice to use effectively.
  • EPO: The European Patent Office (EPO) serves as the centralized patent authority for Europe. Through its Espacenet platform, users can access European patents as well as a large collection of international ones.
  • WIPO: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) oversees the international patent system. Its PATENTSCOPE search service provides access to international Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications in multiple languages.

Beyond these three main entities, there are various national patent offices such as the Japan Patent Office (JPO) and the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China (SIPO). These offices host databases of patents filed within their respective countries.

While each database may differ in its user interface and specific search functionalities, they all provide crucial insights into the world of patents. It’s often advisable to search multiple databases to ensure a comprehensive patent search.

How to Search for a Patent

Embarking on a patent search requires systematic and organized steps. Here’s a roadmap to guide you through the process:

Step 1: Defining Your Search Objective

Before diving into databases, clearly define what you aim to find. Are you checking the patentability of a new invention, seeking licensing opportunities, or analyzing competitors? Your objective will shape your search strategy.

Step 2: Gathering Preliminary Information

Start by collecting any information related to the invention. This might include technical specifications, related technologies, inventors in the field, and more. This information will guide and refine your search later.

Step 3: Keyword Generation

List down keywords related to your invention. Think of synonyms, broader and narrower terms, and technical jargon. These keywords are your starting point in the search databases.

Step 4: Classifications and Codes

Every patent falls under specific classification codes based on its technical features. Identifying these codes can help narrow down your search. Tools like the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) can be invaluable here.

Step 5: Conducting the Initial Search

With keywords and classifications in hand, begin your search in the selected databases. Be systematic, keeping track of search combinations and results.

Step 6: Analyzing Initial Results

Review the patents that appear most relevant. Check their abstracts, claims, and descriptions. These details will give you a better sense of the patent’s scope and relevance to your search objective.

Step 7: Diving Deeper with Advanced Tools

Most patent databases offer advanced search tools. These can help refine results using date ranges, inventors, assignees, and more.

Step 8: Checking Non-Patent Literature

Not all valuable information is in patents. Scientific journals, research papers, and other technical publications can also be crucial. Some databases, like Espacenet, offer non-patent literature searches.

Step 9: International Patent Considerations

If you’re looking beyond one jurisdiction, ensure you explore international databases. Patents filed in one country may have counterparts in others.

Step 10: Documenting and Organizing Your Findings

Keep meticulous records of your searches, results, and analyses. Organized documentation makes revisiting or building upon your search more manageable.

Interpreting Patent Claims

Patent claims define the boundaries of an invention, much like property lines for real estate. Understanding them is crucial, as they determine the patent’s protection scope. 

Each claim must be read as a whole, considering every element. Also, terms used in claims might have specific meanings, either defined in the patent or based on common usage in the field. 

While interpreting claims, one should consider both literal infringement (directly copying) and equivalent infringement (using equivalents to claimed elements).

Common Pitfalls in Patent Searching

Venturing into patent searches can be complex. To ensure efficiency and accuracy, be aware of the following common pitfalls:

1. Over-reliance on Keywords

While keywords are a starting point, relying solely on them can lead to missed patents. It’s essential to combine keyword and classification searches.

2. Ignoring Foreign Languages

Important patents might be published in languages you’re not familiar with. Ensure you use databases that offer translations or seek professional assistance.

3. Overlooking Variations in Terminology

Different inventors or jurisdictions might use varied terms for the same concept. Always consider synonyms and related terms.

4. Not Using Advanced Search Tools

Basic searches can yield overwhelming results. Advanced tools help narrow down and refine these results, making your search more efficient.

5. Misinterpreting Patent Claims

Misunderstanding a patent claim can lead to incorrect conclusions about patent scope or infringement.

6. Failing to Update Searches

The patent landscape is continually evolving. Regularly updating your search ensures you account for newly published patents.

7. Neglecting Non-Patent Literature

Relying solely on patent databases can cause you to miss crucial technological developments documented elsewhere.


Here are some frequently asked questions about patent searching:

1. What is the patent searching process?

The patent searching process involves a systematic approach to explore various databases, both domestic and international, to determine if a specific invention or concept has already been patented. This process may start with a keyword search, use of classification codes, and can even involve analyzing non-patent literature.

2. Can I conduct a patent search on my own?

Yes, anyone can perform a patent search using online patent databases, often starting with a simple keyword search. The USPTO, for instance, offers a patent public search facility. However, for a thorough and detailed search, especially for business or legal decisions, professional assistance might be beneficial.

3. How often should I update my patent search?

Regular updates are crucial, especially if you’re in the R&D or legal field. Newly published patents can change the patent landscape. It’s also essential to monitor plant patents or patents from specific categories regularly if they’re relevant to your domain.

4. What if I only have a patent number?

If you have a patent number, you can directly input it into the search bar of most patent databases. This will retrieve the specific patent document associated with that number.

5. What is the difference between a patent and a patent application?

A patent application is a request for patent protection. Once examined and approved, it becomes a granted patent, providing its holder with exclusive rights.

6. Is every invention patented?

No, many inventions are not patented for various reasons, such as the inventor choosing to keep it as a trade secret or the invention not meeting patentability criteria. It’s also worth noting that while utility patents cover many inventions, plant patents specifically protect new varieties of asexually reproduced plants.

Josh Fechter
Josh is the founder of The Product Company.