November 8, 2018

Patent database a potential treasure trove

Patent searching can reveal valuable insights to guide the future direction of your business

Conventionally, a patent search is used to determine whether your invention is worth protecting. If no one has patented anything like it, you keep going, developing and refining the concept into a commercial product and even filing your own patent application.  If someone has already filed a patent application for a similar idea, then you either drop your idea, work out how to improve it, or, more riskily, keep going with it.

Completing a patent search usually identifies specific inventions developed by other parties. This is hugely important and is why patent searching needs to be conducted. But an examination of existing patents can also deliver valuable insights into the activity of your competitors, R&D trends and provide marketing guidance.  Patent data is a veritable treasure trove of detail that could significantly benefit your business.

Information contained in a patent

A patent is effectively an instruction manual for a technological innovation. When granted, it provides a monopoly right to the inventor of the new technology for up to 20 years.  In return, the inventor describes how to implement the idea or invention and this information is published and made available to the public.

There are around 82 million patents residing in databases worldwide.  Collectively, they describe a fascinating array of clever, remarkable and often valuable solutions to technical and scientific problems, and who invented them.

While many patents are no longer enforceable and/or were never commercialised, the information contained in them remains free to use.

Even if a patent is in force, this doesn’t mean you can’t use the information it contains. Patents are territorial rights so protection exists only in the countries for which patent applications have been filed and granted. If a patent isn’t filed in a particular country, the invention it describes is free for anyone in that country to use.

But what insights can an examination of patents bring?

Competitor insights

An understanding of what patents have been filed can provide valuable insights to competitors’ current and future products and services. You can identify areas of technological or R&D focus which can illustrate what your potential competitors see as their competitive advantage or what direction they may be heading in. This information can help validate your own R&D pathway or suggest new directions. For example, if you were in the smart phone business you might be interested to know that Apple Inc. was recently granted a patent for a folding iPhone.

Information on where patents are being filed can also highlight what markets your competitors consider important and where their business activities are likely to focus.

A patent search can also identify new players in the market and what markets are new.  If there are a lot of patent filings in a certain technology area, it’s a fair bet there is an important reason why. For example, drone patents have grown exponentially, as have patents for AI and machine learning technologies.

Patents aren’t just about what a company is currently doing. They can also signal what they’re contemplating doing or where they see threats or opportunities.  For example, Tesla filed a patent for camouflaging solar tiles, indicating a vision that goes beyond electric cars and rockets into the arena of solar energy.

But doing business isn’t just about taking on competitors in an “us versus them” way. What about collaboration opportunities? A patent search can reveal potential partners operating in similar or adjacent technology areas that are complementary to your business.  For example, you may find that, while someone has come up with (and patented) a similar idea to you, they failed to commercialise it (for whatever reason) or didn’t see its commercial potential. That raises the possibility of leveraging their work through a partnership, and quite possibly saving you from the cost and time of needless R&D.

When to conduct patent searching

Innovators are often unsure of when to conduct patent searching. Do you go looking when the idea is still just an idea? Or wait until you’ve carried out all the R&D, built it, and it’s almost ready to market?

Generally speaking, the earlier you search, the better as the insights gained can be used to guide your own R&D, shape your commercial strategy, and identify infringement risks. Being forewarned about issues or opportunities is being forearmed.

It is also a good idea to regularly re-visit patent searching as the idea develops, to ensure that your understanding of the landscape remains valid and no new issues arise.

What next?

Having derived a body of market intel from your patent search, how do you act on it?

What you’ve learnt should enable you to make better business decisions and plan:

  • How to work around competitors’ rights;
  • Your own R&D direction;
  • How to block off a competitive space;
  • What your branding strategies are;
  • Partnership or licensing opportunities;
  • How to challenge others’ rights;
  • What your filing strategies are;
  • Border control strategies; or
  • Any ongoing intelligence-gathering you should be doing.

Carrying out comprehensive patent searching is a time-consuming and challenging task. It is important to employ skilled patent search specialists to do it.  This will save you time and money. The search experts understand how patent documents are drafted and have experience in interpreting the documents from a legal, technical and business perspective.

Patents are often viewed as very legal, technical and dry documents to assess, but businesses wishing to derive as much market intelligence as they can from readily available sources would do well to lift the lid wide open on the patents treasure chest and appreciate the commercial jewels hidden inside.

James & Wells offers a range of bespoke searching solutions to manage and reduce risk, optimise R&D, identify opportunities, monitor competition and facilitate innovation.  For more information, read our ‘Patent searching and innovation and insight reports’ website page or contact us.

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