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Searching existing patents helps inventors determine whether or not a patent has already been issued for their invention. Patent searching and obtaining a patent are challenging. However, the initial preliminary, prior-art searching process is achievable. This type of search is known as a prior-art or novelty search. It has nothing to do with artwork paintings or graphic designs. It is searching the state of the art tied to the subject matter of the invention. After completing a comprehensive patent search, an inventor can determine whether to invest the money to hire a patent attorney or agent to pursue submitting an application to the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO).
The USPTO suggests that searchers utilize classifications rather than keywords for a truly comprehensive search. Keyword searching is quick and easy but may overlook patents similar to your invention. According to the USPTO, patent classifications are a system for organizing all U.S. patent documents into specific technology groupings based on common subject matter. In 2013, the USPTO moved from using the US Patent Classification (USPC) system to the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) system, a jointly developed system with the European Patent Office (EPO). The structure of CPC is expounded further below. NOTE: The former USPC is still utilized for design patents.
The USPTO suggests the following Seven Step Strategy for performing your own patent search:
Before you start to search, you should see the online video tutorial from the USPTO titled How to Conduct a Preliminary U.S. Patent Search: A Step by Step Strategy. In addition, IP Watchdog offers a Patent Searching 101 tutorial. Please note that the IP Watchdog article does not demonstrate the newer CPC patent classification method illustrated below. The USPTO offers additional information at its Searching for Patents site.
A patent search is highly advisable before submitting one's potential application for a patent. Although the patent application process is one that few inventors or entrepreneurs should implement on their own, prior art patent searching is something most people can do after learning how from a Patent & Trademark Resource Center. Thus, once an inventor feels confident that his or her invention is indeed unique, new, and novel, and it is not found within an exhaustive search, then meeting with a patent attorney or patent agent to review options, such as an application is ideal.
The hierarchy of the CPC scheme is similar to an outline for a presentation or research paper. It consists of a main topic, major point, sub point, minor point. The Guide to CPC (Cooperative Patent Classification) published by the EPO/USPTO demonstrates the structure of the CPC system with each classification consisting of a section, class, subclass, and group. Utilizing the umbrella example from the USPTO Seven Step Strategy as of the year 2020, it is labeled "Devices for increasing the resistance of umbrellas to wind," the letter "A" represents the section; "A45" is the class; "A45B" signifies the subclass level; and "A45B 25/22" is the subgroup within the group level. See figure here for further illustration.
The hierarchical level of CPC subgroups is determined by the number of dots as shown at the USPTO website CPC listings for umbrellas. The subgroup hierarchy is not determined by the numbering in the symbol of the subgroup. There is an additional dot for each indented subgroup. Indention is a notation for illustrating dependency. The main group has no dots, as it is the highest level for the group. The indent level of a subgroup is the main group schedule.
For additional CPC background, see the official USPTO/EPO CPC Training site.