Patrick Anderson of the great Gametime IP blog reported the details of Google’s new prior art searching tool*. This is such important news, I thought it important to repeat it in a separate post. Patrick provides detailed instructions for how to use the Google patent searching tool, and I will not repeat that information here. This post provides commentary on why I think this is a very good development for the patent world. Google’s original announcement on its blog is here. It does not appear coincidental that Google is upgrading its patent searching capabilities: in this press release from June 2010 we are informed of the partnership between Google and the USPTO to increase the amount of US patent information available to the public.
When used correctly, Google’s tool can help “democratize” the patent analysis process by putting more power in the hands of those who are not part of the closed “guild” of patent professionals. For example, before spending money on a search (and the opinion that most patent professionals will insist on writing to put context to the search), an inventor can herself get a feel for not just the patentability of her invention, but also how broad the claims will likely be and how easy or difficult (e.g, expensive) it might be to obtain a patent given the amount of prior art cited by Google.
Of course, the inventor can ask the patent attorney these same questions, but asking someone who makes her living writing patents if it makes sense to file a patent application is a bit like “the fox guarding the henhouse,” n’est-ce pas? I liken this new Google tool to a home improvement show on HGTV–I am never going to build an addition to my house on my own, but having access to professional-grade advice certainly allows me to ask better questions to my contractor and, perhaps, possess a stronger BS detector than I would have without being able to first conduct some self-learning to ground my go-forward actions in the face of “expert” opinion.
While Google ostensibly created this tool to help find prior art (e.g., to invalidate actual or potential patent claims), Patrick correctly notes that this product can also be used to help identify those who might be playing in the same space that is covered by another’s patent. The new Google patent search can provide the owner of an existing patent with insight as to whether another person or company might be building on technology that first appeared in her patent. This could illuminate whether potential licensees and/or infringers exist, an inquiry which to date has typically been one big question mark except for circumstances of obvious marketplace infringement or for entities with sufficient resources to pay a team of patent professionals to conduct the requisite investigation.
A word of caution, however. As detailed in this blog post from 2008, analysis of patent claims is not a trivial process. Before any patent owner acts on a belief that another party is infringing on her patent, it is imperative that an experienced patent lawyer be contacted so as to ensure that one does not end up in a declaratory judgment lawsuit as a defendant. Google’s tool can thus serve only as a signal of potential infringing activity, but I have no doubt that this new product will serve as yet another disruption to the patent profession. And, that is a good thing.
* Yes, Google has had a patent searching tool for sometime, however, I have found it fairly difficult to use–perhaps because it was built without reference to the parts and content of patents. When clients came to me with patent search results from Google, it was ALWAYS the case that a search of “real” patent databases turned up wholly different results. With the emphasis now on patent claims–and the ongoing partnership with the USPTO referenced above, I strongly expect the quality of Google’s patent search to now be improved. The addition of European in a search with US patents will also be a plus (however, I have always liked the search quality of the European Patent Office’s tool for searching ex-US documents).