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Patent prior art searching, and patent registration is not only for inventors. Business product development researchers and competitive intelligence analysts use patent documents to track products and services of other individuals, companies, banks, universities, and government agencies. Searching patents provides much competitive insight. When such a search is initiated, knowing the name of the assignee/applicant is critical. Most companies require their inventors to assign their patent rights to the company. The owner of such patents is often referred to as the assignee. However, if the inventor assigned their patent after it was granted, the patent may not display the assignee. The US Patent & Trademark Office provides a Patent Assignment Search database to track such ownership conveyances.
Patent landscape searching supports the legal and business research purposes of a company. Besides auditing the patents of the company and the obvious identification of technological competitors, such patent landscape searches help companies to conduct a patent literature review of prior art. The patents retrieved allow the researcher to analyze patent trends and to forecast technological developments that support strategic research and product development. In addition, a patent landscape analysis could identify and help to avoid potential infringements. A patent landscape outlook often identifies promising patents for market viability and identifying technological vacuums and hotspots.
Patent landscaping and business trends are easy to collect via free online patent searching databases, including those covered on this site. A patent landscape search offers competitive intelligence insight and reveals market opportunities, identifies potential customers, and determines niche markets of a specific patented product or technology. As covered on this site, one is able to search patent databases by inventor or company, patent number, or invention keyword. A searcher is able to identify relevant patent classification groups and analyze patent trends by company or other unique bibliographic fields of the patents. With these databases, one is able to look at patent references backward (cited works on original patent application) and forward (citing works of a patent in future patents) to compare technology’s level of development. It is important to note that the number of forward citations of patent increases over time. The PubWEST database (available at most patent and trademark resource centers, or PTRCs) and the Espacenet online database offer spreadsheet conversion tools to display one’s findings via visualization tools such as bar charts, graphs, and cluster graphics. PubWEST and Espacenet provide assignee/applicant field searching to isolate patents by company name too.
When one pursues a patent landscape analysis, one must ask five questions. These five questions also provide the five steps to the patent landscape searching process demonstrated below:
1. In what areas does a company patent?
2. Who are its competitors?
3. How strong is a patent?
4. What is the patenting trend in a specified field?
5. Can we predict a likely scenario for the future?
A hypothetical patent landscape search is demonstrated below with new and improved snowboard bindings classified as the truncated CPC code A63C10/, entitled Snowboard Bindings. US patent 8,662,505 displayed shows the snowboard binding example of our patent landscape search.
To determine the classification of a technology, one should conduct a preliminary patent search, as demonstrated on this site with the Seven Step Strategy. Then by utilizing a classification gateway of any free or commercial patent searching database, one should be able to locate classifications to complete a patent landscape search. Five questions about this process are answered below. The first question refers to patents from a specific company; the second is for multiple companies.
Start from the PubWEST or the Espacenet database to avoid manual aggregation of content. Search assignee fields for all years to get patents from a single company.
Go into the first patent listed and look for primary CPC class number. For design patents, use the former U.S. Patent Classification class and subclass codes. See Patent Searching section of this site for details on classification systems. Navigate through the results list; note, first, the primary class numbers on each patent. Aggregate the patents by primary class number to determine which one(s) predominate(s).
After you have located the patent listing from a single company from PubWEST or Espacenet, you should be able to create a grid display to import the essential fields to an Excel spreadsheet via a CSV function. Once the content is in an Excel spreadsheet, you should be able to consolidate the CPC classes by count to compare how many patents are listed by class for your company. Next, select one of the visualization tools from Excel to display the numbers by count as a pie chart (or bar graph), as shown.
To view the competitive patents of a company, search the current classification field, using the classes found. CPC classes may need to be truncated. For example, if the closely related CPC classes are A63C 10/04, A63C 10/22, and so on, truncate the CPC class as A63C 10$. Go into the first patent and note assignee name. Navigate to move through the results list; note assignee for each patent. Aggregate the patents by assignee for a tally count to see which firms have patented most heavily in this area. After the content is transferred to a spreadsheet as directed in step one, and select one of the visualization tools to display the number of patents listed for each competitor. See bar graph for details.
To determine the strength of a patent, enter the patent number in one of the data bases suggested above. Examine the patent document for the following strengths:
• Is the assignee company well-known?
• Is there less than a two-year period between application and granted patent date?
• Are there ample prior art citations?
• Does prior art include nonpatent literature?
• Is there more than one inventor?
• Are foreign patents cited?
• If a patent is cited “reference by” many later patents, this validates its strength/value.
Search the current classification field for the area of investigation. Examine results by frequency and year. Also, analyze the movement in the number of patents over time. These statistics can be collected when researching assignee and company areas as researched in Question 2.
Consider reviewing trends from patent searches complete above. Then search patent databases for applications by current classification number to see patents pending in the same area. You could also subscribe to free patent application alert services such as the one the USPTO partners with LexisNexis, available at https://www.uspatentappalerts.com.
Other related resources that patent landscape searchers should review to complete their analysis include:
• Company annual reports and sales figures
• Business periodicals and newspaper articles (trade journals)
• Mergers/partnerships/licensing agreements
• Budget devoted to research and development
• Government/university research connections
• Track record in developing new products
• Current litigation news and alerts
• Subscription business databases at your local library
As noted earlier, the USPTO also offers a Patent Assignment Search database. Patent assignment records provide history of ownership transfers. Looking up company names in this database determines the most current assignee data on record. Often assignee names listed on patents are not the current owner found in the Assignment database. Such information could provide clues to future trends of companies listed.
Numerous articles are published on patent landscape searching techniques for business researchers. For example, Guidelines for Preparing Patent Landscape Reports by Anthony Trippe on behalf of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This concept, shown above, was originally shared with PTRC librarians by colleague Donna Hopkins in her article “Using Patents to Plot Business Trends,” published in DttP (Documents to the People) 30, no. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2002): 10-13.