Beginning the Patent Application Process – Prior Art Search and Patentability Opinion

How we think (read: hope) the patent process goes: invent something, file a patent application, get the patent, make millions!!!

Beyond the first step, the process is more involved.  And before you file a patent application for your invention, it is important to understand the process of applying for, and hopefully receiving, a patent.

In short, starting with a (professional) prior art search and patentability analysis is an up-front cost, but may save you money in the long run.  Schedule a free initial phone consultation with a registered patent attorney to see if it is right for you!

Now, back to the details of the patent application process.

The first step in the process of filing your patent application is determining whether your invention is patentable.  Patentable inventions include processes (i.e., a way of doing something), machines, articles of manufacture, and compositions of matter (molecules, etc.), but the consideration does not end there.  To be patentable, an invention must be new, useful, and non-obvious.  The first two requirements fall largely within the common understanding of the English words “new” and “useful”.  For an invention to be new, it must not have been invented by someone else before you; for an invention to be useful, it must serve a purpose.  Usefulness is the easiest of the requirements to meet.  After all, a rock is useful as a paperweight.  But the remaining requirements, novelty (patent-ese for new) and non-obviousness, involve more consideration.

You may be thinking, “how can you tell if it has been invented by someone else before?”  Well, I am glad you asked.

Google can be a useful tool when you’re trying to find an answer, or a restaurant, or even a patent.  However, a typical internet search is not a sufficient way to investigate whether your invention is new and non-obvious.  Determining that your invention is sufficiently new to warrant filing a patent application typically involves a prior art search.  “Prior art” includes the inventions in the same field as your invention that happened before your invention.  Prior art that will prevent your invention from being patentable includes issued patents, printed publications, inventions that are known and/or used, and inventions that are offered for sale.  When you get into the gory details, additional geographic and timing questions are relevant, but the patent attorney you hire can help with those details.

To find out whether your invention may be novel and non-obvious, and therefore warrants filing a patent application, a licensed patent practitioner should order a prior art search and analyze your invention in light of the search results.

The prior art search and analysis provides multiple benefits.  The first benefit is a determination that your invention is novel.[1]  The second benefit is providing some insight into the state of the art of your invention.  This can help the patent practitioner who is preparing your patent application to distinguish your invention from other inventions in the prior art.  By preparing your patent application to distinguish your invention from the prior art, you may reduce the number of times the patent practitioner you’ve hired needs to respond to letters from the patent office, thus reducing the cost of your patent application.

The third benefit is to provide some insight into whether your invention is non-obvious.  The term “obvious”, as used in patent-ese, has a different meaning than when the word obvious is used in everyday speech.   In patent-ese, obviousness refers to whether your invention could have been made using two or more pieces of prior art that, when combined, make your invention.  The fact that no one has ever actually combined the prior art in the way you suggest does not make your invention non-obvious.[2]  Once again, when you get into the gory details, the obviousness consideration is more complex, but that is why you’re planning to hire a patent practitioner help you in the process.

Once you have decided to move forward with the preparation and filing of your patent application, the practitioner you’ve hired will work with you to draft a complete description of your invention, including a written description, drawings of the invention, and a set of patent claims.  The claims are the part of the patent application that describes exactly what your invention is.

After your patent application is prepared and you have reviewed and approved it, your application is filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and the filing and prosecution fees are paid.  The word “prosecution” is typically associated with criminal court, but that’s not the ways it is used here.  Patent prosecution describes the process of filing a patent application and responding to communications from the USPTO until your application has one or more claims allowed, or you decide to abandon the application.

[1] The results of a prior art search and the opinion of a patent practitioner cannot be guaranteed.  No prior-art search can be completely comprehensive, and the examiner at the Patent Office may find a reference not identified in the prior art search, or may simply have a different opinion, and may still reject an application based on novelty.

[2] The results of a prior art search and the opinion of a patent practitioner cannot be guaranteed.  No prior-art search can be completely comprehensive, and the examiner at the Patent Office may find a reference not identified in the prior art search, or may simply have a different opinion, and may still reject an application for obviousness.