Happy Holidays everyone! I woke up this morning to the Christmas sunrise over Miami Beach on Christmas morning. Having grown up in this town–where Christmas means a trip to the beach, not the joy of new ice skates–I am feeling a whole lot of holiday spirit. This made me realize that I have been meaning to respond to some inquiries folks have made about patent searching tools that I use in my daily IP Strategy work. Since most of these are free (or almost) free, consider this your holiday gift from me!
I hear it now: “Free? Did she say free? But, such and such company wants to charge me $1500 a month, which is a much better deal than my lawyers charge me for monitoring patents in my business space on an ongoing basis. And, this consultant offered to do a whitespace analysis that would solve all my innovation issues for $20K, which seemed like a deal, given how much time he said it would save my team so that we could get our new product lines to market so much faster.”
Certainly, in the last few years, there have been countless business models that have sprung up to help business professionals navigate the virtual morass of patent information that resulted from increased transparency of issued patents and published patent applications emanating from the dozens of established patent systems in the world. As more countries are developing modern patent systems, the information volume only increases as their documents come online. This overload of data has lead to entrepreneurial activities focused on the analysis of the data, effectively looking at the situation as a data volume problem, not an information retrieval problem. As I have written about before, I think most of these products are at best a waste of your money and, at worst dangerous because reliance on the wrong conclusions can take your business down the wrong path.
But this blog post is not about the problems with existing data and analysis vendors and products, this blog post is about how to reduce your reliance on their products, either partially or entirely using free or almost free products. Sure, the US Patent Office website has been free for years, but it is currently not user-friendly, nor is it possible for a layman to download information. I expect that Google Patent Search will become easier to use as time goes on, especially as the company works more closely with the US Patent Office, but right now it is also not possible to download files, and am I not entirely comfortable with the use of Google’s search algorithm’s to properly parse the typically arcane legal language of patents (and wonder if I ever will be).
Why does someone like me care about free? It’s not so much that I care about not paying for searching. Rather, each database has pluses and minuses and, as a result, I like to be able to search multiple locations to confirm the integrity of my results and to test out my search strategies. These limitations extend to the expensive commercial databases so, instead of paying $1000′s a year for a single database, I think it makes more sense to stack several free or almost free tools to provide my clients with the highest possible quality business analysis from patent data at a reasonable price. And, even though I make my living today as an IP Strategist, I don’t do searches on a daily, or even weekly, basis. So, it doesn’t make sense to pony up the huge subscription for one of the better known (and more broadly marketed) commercial products.
So, I present you with the tools that I use. (This list is not meant to be exhaustive; rather, these are the tools that I use on a regular basis. I would be pleased to look at other tools if any reader wishes to let me know of some not on my list.) The ready availability of these tools will, I believe, result in the increasing democratization of patent information. This increased accessibility will, in turn, lead to the use of this substantive information being used more broadly in business. The data is there, you should be using it. If you are not, then you are leaving money on the table. If your competitor is using it, and you are not, you are at a marked disadvantage to them.
I really like this totally free database because it’s methodology and searching parameters are backed up by a real patent attorney, who is also a really strong IP strategy person. Much of my problem with products in the marketplace today, both paid and free, is that they were created by “data jockeys,” not patent experts. But, it is not enough to have a patent expert design a patent analysis tool, the tool also needs to be directed toward extracting the business relevant information from the legal substance. Patrick Anderson and his team at Patent Calls have done just that. I enjoy using this tool greatly. The one downside is that they are still rolling out features and the like, so the database is down for maintenance on occasion. Their business model appears to be a premium product that is coming out in the near future (which I have not yet tested), as well as consultant-based projects that companies that do not want to drive the tools themselves can acquire. You can export lists into Excel spreadsheets and slice and dice them as you desire. The various fields available in Patent Calls allow you to cull the lists a bit more precisely prior to exporting, however, which make the analysis in Excel less cumbersome.
Quality: B (due to service interruptions, which will likely decrease in frequency in coming months)
I discovered this product earlier this year when I obtained a large innovation project from a Fortune 500 consumer products company. At the time the database was free, and I learned to love the lists feature very much. This feature allows you to add results from multiple searches to one or more lists that you set up separately based upon various business questions that you wish to analyze. The nifty part about this is that you can see whether a particular patent is already in one or more lists, which can save you a lot of time when you are dealing with a large dataset. Unfortunately, at least for us lovers of free tools, Boliven was bought by Cambridge IP earlier this year, and now they only allow you to look at 30 patent documents for free. This is far too few a number for a search to have any value, so I have stopped using the free option. The price of the premium option is reasonable at $99 a month, and I would still recommend this database to anyone who needs a good search tool on a regular basis, but whose budget does not fit the high cost of the better known tools. My recommendation to Boliven would be to allow a per day option to capture folks who only occasionally have searching needs, or who want to validate search results run in other databases.
In the last year, I have gotten to know the VP of Marketing of IP Vision very well. I have also driven their product to a great extent. The good news is that it is absolutely fabulous! You can dive deep into the data to tease out truly amazing insights. The benefit of IP Vision’s product is not the searching capability, which probably is not very much different from that of other vendors, but the very sophisticated, but user friendly, data analysis tools. As an example of the quality of this product, I was able to determine in very short order that a Fortune 100 medical device company did not have patent protection to its current premier product line. I was truly awed by the features of this product. I am told that they were among the early providers of a ‘freemium’ level and continue to offer this with free level access with up to 100 records in a search result. These include the ability to store/save results, generate basic patent maps, etc. w/o extra charge. I find 100 documents to be a bit limiting, so I wouldn’t recommend the free version for front end searching, but, they have recently introduced a $250 a month option that allows you to view up to 1000 documents in a search. Between you and me, if you run a search that provides 1000 search results, you are probably asking the wrong business question, so this option is probably good enough for just about anyone, even though $250 a month when spread over a year starts to reach the level of some more familiar commercial products.
Value: B (based upon my personal view that 100 documents in the freemium version is not adequate for front end searching)
I had great hopes for Sumobrain a couple of years ago, because they were the only company that allowed you to do a substantive patent search, save a search, download search results and also download PDF copies of documents. The director of marketing reached out to me in 2009 to tell me about their business plans, but it appears that these plans fell by the wayside with the recent economic environment. The site is apparently not supported, but I still use it on a regular basis. The site is easy to use, and I often run “quick and dirty” searches here.
This site does exactly what it says: gets you a PDF of a US patent document. If you have a patent or application number, all you do is type it in and you will obtain a copy of the actual document in PDF format. The service is free. It is also quick, so I often use this when I want to review patent documents from searches that I ran in the other databases.
Quality: A (if all you care about it PDF documents)