Generally speaking, you can protect your invention to the extent (and ONLY to the extent) that it is new and unusual. To know what is new; you have to look at what is old in order to find out what is close.
A preliminary search can provide a good estimate as to how strong a patent you can hope to get. Patents are issued for things that are new and that are not obvious improvements on something else that is already known. A good search usually provides the basis for estimating just what is new and "non-obvious" about an invention -- and that's the only part you can hope to protect anyway.
You should do your own preliminary search on the internet.
A keyword search on any of the major search engines should turn up a lot of background data to sort through. As always, finding relevant hits is a test of your skill in keyword selection, but the search sites are generally free to use and very user friendly. Also, some sites deliver viewable images that may turn up something similar to what youíre working on.† In some cases a general purpose search engine will turn up more recent references than can be found on a patent-specific database (patent applications are generally not available until 18 months after being filed, so a product announcement or a technical paper may make it into public view before the patent application can be found).
In most technical fields there are a relatively few patent references that get lost in a sea of irrelevant material returned by a Google keyword search. This leads one to search in patent-specific databases which generally require a bit more searching skill.
The European Patent Office ESPACE search site provides access to something on the order of 20 million patents. It allows structured keyword searches, but is more effectively used for searches based on either the EPOís or the World Intellectual Property Organizationís subject classification system.
The USPTO provides databases for searching both issued patents (since 1793) and unexamined published applications (since 2001). They also provide public access to the official file record (via a system called Public PAIR), which allows one to see how a particular reference has been applied in an examination.
Both the quality and the completeness of a search depend on
You can also arrange for a professional search.
Expect your patent agent or attorney to advise a professional search even if you have done a careful preliminary one. A good search should retrieve 5-10 patents conceptually close to your invention, and should include a patentability report pointing out what appears to be "closest" to each significant feature of your invention. The report should give you a general assessment of how much protection a patent is likely to offer you. Be sure to pay close attention to the list of limitations set by the prior art. An inventor who pursues a patent regardless of the limitations usually gets a worthless patent.
Good professional novelty searches usually cost $500-$1500, depending on the subject area and search method. Please note that the format of a search report and the cost of a search are no guarantee of its quality.
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