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Before spending big money on your idea, it is useful to check out whether r not you can get a patent, and what competition might be. Google Patents, while not necessarily the complete source for patent searching, is easy to do on your own and can often identify competing prior art.
A note of caution here, prior art does not necessarily mean that you can’t get a patent on your idea. Patent agents and patent attorney can often figure out patent approach that will work. But prior art does mean it is likely that you patent will be limited in scope. It also often means your patent might cover a more complicated that is more expensive to make. Either way, it is helpful for inventors to know what prior art is out there.
One of the main things Google patents can help you with is to see if patents are assigned to a company. That means a company has considered introducing, or actually introducing a product. That is stronger competition than an individual inventor trying to market a product on their own.
Your first step is to go to Google patents, which is at https://www.google.com/patents. Then put into the search box multiple search terms that are broader than your idea. For example, let’s say you have plastic bag with a zipper to keep your shirts from getting wrinkled on an airplane. You might search for wrinkle free clothes bag, plastic enclosures for traveling, vacuum sealed bag for traveling, and bags for enclosure in travel suitcases or carriers. This should call up patents that may be close to your ideas. Besides considering this patent, you should also look at the patents listed on the patent called patent citations and Cited by. These are patents that were either cited by this patent, or were cited later by subsequent patents. You typically will find additional patents that are similar to your idea and you should check each of them out.
Goggle Patents, www.google.com/patents, has a feature called prior art searching. Typically, patents are granted only if the invention is new and not obvious, which means in patent language, that there isn’t prior art, which simply means the product hasn’t been publicly disclosed previously either in a patent, by being sold, or in some other fashion. The Prior Art Finder makes it easy to search multiple sources simultaneously for prior art. You can experiment with it by clicking on the “Find Prior Art” button from a patent’s main page, or on the “Related” link in patent search results.
The Prior Art Finder identifies key phrases from EPO (European Patent Office) and post-1976 US patent documents, combines them into a search query, and displays the results from Google Patents, Google Scholar, Google Books, and the rest of the web.
Prior art searching gives you a scope of what other patent activity is in your product category. Often it takes a patent agent or attorney to tell you if the prior art will stop your patent. But a lot of patent in your category is a red flag that you could end up with a patent that is too narrow in scope to be valuable. It also means there are a lot of other people with patents that might make it more difficult to license your idea.