There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to patent searches.
That is, how do you define a quality patent search?
It’s an elephant in the room because no one really asks this question about patent searches. The reason is that when it comes to a good patent search the general sense is that you’ll know it when you see it, but you can’t really define it. And of course, when you’re looking for a service and trying to weigh your options, that’s not good.
The wrong way
One common school of thought is to say, “well, we’re getting good results from our search provider, so it must be a quality search”. But there are real problems with that approach. First of all, we want to know beforehand whether we’ll be getting a high-quality search and looking at the search report is after-the-fact. Also, are there better results? The results you got might be good, but maybe a better search would yield better results. And, like the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future results. That means that just because your search provider has given you good results in the past doesn’t mean that he always will.
Another approach is to say that if we compare search results with different search providers, we can see which one is better. But that’s not practical because who has time for that? Also, maybe one search provider will be better with one technology, and another will be better with a different technology. Even within search companies, it won’t necessarily be the same person who’ll be performing all of your searches in all technologies. Hence, a simple comparison is not a good metric either.
But probably the most common approach is what I mentioned at the outset. That is, most people think we simply cannot know whether a search is truly high-quality. But is that true?
The right way
The key to answering this question is to shift focus from the search report to the service provider. Instead of asking whether this is a high-quality search report, ask what was the method used to generate the search report. Ask whether it is a repeatable process that can be expected to identify relevant prior art each and every time.
In other words, don’t look at the results, look at the process. Look at the technique, the ‘behind the scenes’ of the search. As such, it’s wrong to argue that your patent search provider is valuable just because they provide you with good results.
A high-quality patent search is one that was performed by a repeatable process that enables identifying relevant prior art each time.
Now that we have this definition and we now know what a high-quality search is, practically speaking, how do we do it? How do we generate such a search?
There are 3 ingredients that when mixed together produce the perfect patent search.
Ingredient 1 is the search team itself. The search team must be made up of people who have had professional training in how to search for prior art. That means former patent examiners or patent search specialists, like STIC specialists at the USPTO, for those who are familiar. But also other professionals who have gone through a patent search training program.
One might argue that anyone who understands an invention technology and has access to a search engine can perform a patent search. However, to really understand the technique and methodology behind how to search, professional training, specifically in IP searching, is critical.
Ingredient 2, and maybe even more important, is the search process. As mentioned, traditional prior art searching is performed by people, not robots. Human error is only natural, but it’s imperative to reduce that potential for error as much as possible.
The way to do this is by using a collaborative approach when performing patent searches. The more people involved, the less likely that a relevant keyword or classification will be overlooked.
Additionally, there should be a methodological approach to the search. For instance, one methodology could be first to perform a keyword-only search, then perform a classification-only search, and then perform a search combining both keywords and classification codes. Because if it’s always a mixed bag of keywords and classifications, the filtering process will be much less efficient.
Also, the process must include a system for quality control. That means reviews of both the search strategy and the search terms and reviews of the results at the different stages of the search. All those are critical to ensure that the search is on target.
Ingredient 3 is that multiple databases should be used. As noted above, different search engines will produce different results using the same search string. That’s because different search engines have different search capabilities, they have different search features, different algorithms, etc. So if only one search engine is used, it will almost certainly be incomplete.
And, of course, patent databases are just one part of the equation. Patent searches should be supplemented with searching for non-patent literature as well to round out the picture of the prior art.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a way to define a high-quality patent search. Find out who does your searches and how much IP search experience they have. Ensure that more than one set of eyes is going through the search strategies. And finally, if non-patent literature is important to you, be sure that your search provider is searching through multiple databases that include all forms of publications of interest.
The bottom line is that with professionally trained IP searchers, using a quality assurance process, and covering the relevant databases, you can be sure you’ll get a high-quality Patent Search.