As an inventor or entrepreneur, a huge step in the process is to make sure that your idea hasn’t already been created or patented by someone else. This ensures that you have an original idea (which will make you more money, of course) and that you are protected from lawsuits. If you ever have any question regarding the kind of legal mess a “prior art” claim can cause, just ask Samsung about their current string of vacuum cleaner lawsuits.
Because there are so many patents out there, it can be tedious and mind-numbingly time consuming to conduct a search for exactly what you are looking for. Fortunately, Google (who has had their own share of patent and prior art wars) has made it much easier for aspiring innovators to do their patent research and make sure their ideas are new and fresh.
They created a tool called “Prior Art Finder” that is a simple text box. You type in a phrase or a description of your idea, and the Google machine searches through Google Patents, Google Scholar, Google Books, and the entire web to see if anyone has pitched that idea before. The idea is not just to search previously awarded patents – while that is important, there is more to the prior art claim. Google’s Prior Art Finder will let you know if anyone ever in the history of ever (according to the Internet, that is) has thought of your idea. Technically speaking, if the idea has already been thought of, you shouldn’t be able to patent it.
It may seem like a little bit of a downer – after all, what are the chances that your brand new idea has NEVER been mentioned before – but you would be surprised. You are probably more creative than you are giving yourself credit for. Plus, if you find your idea mentioned, it could be just the motivation you need to push the idea a little further and turn it into something that truly is original.
The other point worth mentioning is that the US Patent Office does not really utilize this tool. They are concerned only with previous patents, so if you do chose to lift someone’s prior art and then patent it yourself, you may not get caught in the early stages. Just know that you will be leaving yourself vulnerable to a lawsuit later on if the originator of the idea wants to come after you.
The Prior Art tool is still in development (and has been for the past several years), but it can be an extremely useful resource as you start to take your ideas and run with them. Run your idea through it and see what you come up with. You may find that your idea truly is unique, and it’s time to go get it protected!