Is my idea already patented?
Most inventors dont really want to find their invention in someone elses patent, so the spend 5 minutes looking and then declare that they can't find it. It takes longer than that. If your invention is a mouse trap, you might find it by searching for those words...but the killer patent might instead describe a rodent restriction device or an automatic small animal containment system. Look for it like you want to find it. Talk to a registered patent attorney for immediate advice on protecting your idea (in the form of a provisional patent) while you determine if it is worth pursuing, in view of a preliminary search of related inventions, patented or not. Even if you don't find any "patents" showing your idea used in an invention, it could still be unpatentable because someone else used it or described it before you filed your provisional application.The Poor Man's Patent is a Myth
One of the undying myths of Patent World is that there is such a thing as a Poor Man's Patent. If you've never heard of it, the poor man's patent involves writing out a description of your invention and mailing that description to yourself. The transmission of this description through the mail and the cancelling of the postage by the Post Office is supposed to establish a date of invention for you. That way if someone steals your invention or comes along and invents it independently, you have "proof" that you invented it first. The proof is in the sealed envelop and the date the postage was cancelled.What You Can Patent
A patent provides you with the right to keep others from making and selling your invention for up to 20 years. The most common type of patent, a utility patent, protects rights in new and useful processes, machines and other things. These patents also can protect rights in non-obvious improvements made to existing things. To determine if your invention is patentable, you must first research all previous patents and other publicly disclosed inventions to ensure that no one else has already patented something similar. Because this process can be difficult and complicated, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recommends hiring a registered patent attorney to conduct the search for you.Attorney Fees / Invention Complexity
The USPTO, IP Watchdog and every patent law firm strongly recommends that inventors hire a patent agent or attorney to prepare the application. IP Watchdog reminds inventors that not only is the process confusing, but a patent is a legal document that uses the language found in the application and patents can only be protected in court, where every word in the document matters. IP Watchdog reports that the median cost of a patent attorney is around $250 an hour, higher in urban areas (Quinn suggests hiring an experienced attorney that works in an area with a low cost of living as a way to control costs, as opposed to hiring an inexperienced attorney). Quinn states that, depending on the complexity of the invention, attorney fees for conducting a search and preparing an application with drawings usually run between $7,000 and $15,000. The more complex an invention, the longer the attorney spends researching related patents, writing up a detailed description and outlining exactly what the patent should protect. Drawings also take longer the more complex the invention is, and USPTO rewrites can be more difficult.Patent Searching 101: A Patent Search Tutorial
Inventors and entrepreneurs who are looking to cut costs frequently want to do their own search. This is a wise first move, but you really need to be careful. It is quite common for inventors to search and find nothing even when there are things that could and would be found by a professional searcher. So while it makes sense to do your own search first, be careful relying on your own search to justify spending the thousands of dollars you will need to spend to ultimately obtain a patent. In other words, nothing in this article should be interpreted as me suggesting that inventors can or should forgo a professional patent search. There is simply no comparison between an inventor done patent search and a patent search done by a pro. Having said that, every inventor should spend time searching and looking if for no other reason than to familiarize themselves with the prior art. Of course, if you can find something that is too close on your own you save time and money and can move on to whatever invention/project is next. Another thing you MUST know about when you use Google Patent Search is that there are also some holes in the database. I have specifically looked for patents I know to exist and cannot always find them. I have heard the same experience from other patent attorneys and agents. Additionally, the most recent patents are not available on Google. What this means is you cannot only rely on Google, but you still must use Google. The Google database covers patents that are issued all the way back to US Patent No. 1. This scope is much broader than either Free Patents or the USPTO . So while you might not find everything, while it is difficult to specifically narrow your search, you still really need to check yourself using the Google database to see if there are old references that might be on point. In this case there are not many to choose from. Many times, however, the list will contain hundreds or even thousands of patents depending upon the popularity of the term or phrase selected. For example, if you search "SPEC/thermos", you will find hundreds of patents that use this word in the specification. In fact, at the time this sample search was conducted (March 16, 2012) no fewer than 970 US patents have the word "thermos" in the specification, and that is only for patents issued since 1976. So what should you do now? If you find too many patents, rework the specification field search. For example, if your search were "SPEC/thermos and SPEC/beverage" you get down to 200 US patents. Ultimately, upon receiving manageable results, just click on several of the patents. The key, however, is to start off broad and then narrow your way down to those that are the most likely relevant references. Also remember that it is critically important to figure out what things are called. I cannot stress this enough. You need to use different names and labels. You will find that patent attorneys typically call certain features by a select few names. These names are not always obvious, but once you figure out what the industry calls something you are far more likely to find relevant patents.