How do you know if a patent already exists?

Your invention has to bring something new and unique to the table, or it can’t get a patent. The patent process begins by searching for similar patents. Find out more about how to see if someone has patented your idea.

by Joe Runge, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

You have a great idea - a product that will change everything. You think: "I need to patent my idea". The first step towards patenting an idea is a patent search. Before you get too far into the patent process, it is critical to know what other patents are out there. A patent search is essential to determine how difficult it will be to get the patent you need.

Searching is Easier than Ever

To search patents you need a patent database. Not too long ago, your search had to happen at the patent office. Now, the United States Patent and Trademark Office makes its entire database of patents available for patents search. Services like Google also index patents. Through the internet, inventors have access to resources, especially for a U.S. Patent search, to search for patents that were unimagined before.

It is easier now to search patents than ever before. Before you start patent an idea you need to know more than did someone else patent your idea? You can repeat multiple patent searches, using a variety of key words. Search patent databases as soon as possible so that you can find out quickly if someone has already patented your invention. That way you can change direction or invent something else.

Know What You are Looking For

To conduct a patent search you have to know what makes your invention novel? That means, what is it that makes your product, service or system new and different?

The next step is to break down those new features into search logic. Let’s say your product is a new key ring that makes it easier to clasp your keys to the side of the purse. The novel parts are the spring-loaded clasp that allows the user to clip it to the side of a purse with one hand.

To search for your invention, reconstruct those elements: keychain, purse, spring and clasp. Next expand on your search phrases with any possible synonyms that you can think of: (keychain OR key ring) AND (purse OR handbag). Keep refining your search to get the number of hits down to something manageable. Keep track of your search logic. Write it down and know how many hits each search resulted in.

The patent office receives more patent applications now than at any other time in history. You will want to repeat your search periodically to make sure that there are not any new patents that are close to your invention. Keeping your search logic makes sure you can easily repeat your search.

Near Misses and Direct Hits

You finish your search and find no one else has patented your invention. You do, however, some other patents. Someone invented a similar spring-loaded clasp for the back of a stroller. It is different, with a bigger spring and different shaped clasp but it shares many similarities.

Even if someone has not patented your invention, your search is very important. Patents require absolute novelty. No one can ever have patented the same invention. Patents also cannot be obvious, this means, in legal terms, that a reasonable expert in the field could not have simply figured out how to create the invention. Looking at the stroller clasp, the patent office could argue that your purse clasp is an obvious modification of the stroller clasp – maybe the only real difference is the size.

When you write your patent it is best to include details that make it easier to argue that your purse clasp is not obvious: perhaps the small size of the spring requires special materials or the shape of the clasp has to include a specific angle. Either way, it is better to know about the stroller invention ahead of time, to reference it in your patent and include details that differentiate it over the stroller clasp.

Even if you are filing a provisional patent - conduct a patent search. Even if no one has patented your invention it is important to know what else is out there.

LegalZoom can help you conduct a patent search to determine if there are existing patents that are similar to yours. We can also help you file a provisional application for patent once it has been determined your patent doesn't already exist. Get started by answering questions about your invention.

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Joe Runge, Esq.

About the Author

Joe Runge, Esq.

Joe Runge graduated from the University of Iowa with a Juris doctorate and a master of science in molecular evolution. H… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.