Why patent searches and prior art searches are a good idea

Thinking like a detective

Prior art searches: Before investing a lot of time, effort, and money in trying to patent a potential new invention, it is always good to spend at least a few hours doing patent searches to see if there is any prior art (earlier patent or non-patent publications) that might cause problems. As a rule of thumb, if you haven’t found any prior art that concerns you at least a bit, then you probably haven’t looked enough yet!

Why do this? Because eventually, skeptical USPTO examiners will be going through your patent application, looking for ways to reject on the basis that the application is either not novel or obvious in view of prior art.

Patent examination is an adversarial process. Patent examiners have, in effect, quotas which require them to initially reject most patent applications. It is a bit of a game, like tennis, where the examiner initially rejects by citing some combination of prior art.  The examiner then hits the ball back onto the applicant’s side of the court. The examiner is expecting the applicant to hit the ball back onto the examiner’s side of the court by submitting convincing arguments pointing out where the examiner was wrong. If the applicant can convincingly argue that the examiner is wrong, usually (often after a few additional volleys), the examiner allows the patent, and the applicant wins. But if the applicant cannot argue back convincingly, it is like dropping the ball or hitting the ball back out of bounds. The applicant loses, and that patent application is going nowhere.

The patent examiner typically starts by doing computer searches for prior art using search terms that the examiner thinks will work best. This computer search will come up with unexpected citations, which the examiner may in turn combine in unexpected ways to try to show that the invention is “obvious”. Because of the quota to initially reject almost everything, often these initial rejections are unreasonable. Unreasonable rejections are “good news” in disguise, because the applicant can then rebut these by reasonable arguments. It is the reasonable rejections that are the real “bad news”, because these are harder to argue against. So before putting a lot of time and money into an invention, it is a good idea to do at least some initial checking to see what the examiner (or for that matter, a competitor) might try to use against you later. This is the idea behind a “feasibility study” type prior art search.

Sometimes, particularly when the inventor or inventors are experts, the inventors themselves may decide that they are sufficiently familiar with their field so that the search-time expense/benefit ratio is low, and no additional prior art searches are worthwhile. Here, since the USPTO will do an independent search anyway, the only obligation that the inventors have is to inform USPTO of the most important prior art that they are aware of.

Other times, particularly when the inventor or inventors are working in an area that is new to them, prior art searches have a better search-time expense/benefit ratio. Here many good sources are available over the Internet, including Google, Google patents, Google Scholar, the USPTO patent database, the WIPO patent database, and the like.

Some common mistakes that inventors make is to underestimate the amount of prior art that a patent examiner can use against their invention. Although pretty much everyone understands the problem of prior patent applications by others, this is only part of the prior art problem.

For example, for the US, anything published more than a year ago can be used against your invention, including your own publications. This includes that “cool” YouTube video, that “cool” social media posting, or that research paper/thesis that you may have published last year. Foreign patent offices are even worse in this regard. Patent examiners know that often the inventor’s own worst enemy is the inventor’s own earlier publications. As a result, patent examiners often specifically search for the inventor’s own publications and internet postings to use against them.

Another problem that inventors sometimes have is that they are a bit too emotionally attached to their cool new idea.  This problem can result in sub-optimal prior art searches. The inventor may, perhaps subconsciously, avoid search strategies that may kill that shiny new idea.

Here, there are several advantages to having a patent attorney do a quick feasibility prior art search for you. One is that the patent attorney does prior art searches all the time. Another is that the patent attorney, being both less emotionally invested in the idea, and being expert in finding prior art, may have an easier time thinking of thorough search strategies. The third is that often doing the search helps the patent attorney understand variants of your idea better, which can translate into a better patent application.

For example, if something highly relevant comes up (and often something does come up), then the new idea can be better evaluated in the context of this new-found prior art. The scope of the initial idea may be altered or expanded, and a better patent application can result. Worst case, if it becomes clear that the idea has been done before, then time and money can be saved. Alternative ideas can be explored instead.

In conclusion, “feasibility study” type prior art searches are a good a way to get at least a rough estimate of the legal feasibility of a new idea. Although the prior art search may uncover what looks at a first glance to be a tough obstacle, often this initial obstacle may encourage further thinking and improvements to the initial idea, resulting in a better patent down the road.

Note that in addition to “feasibility study” type prior art searches, there are other types of patent searches called “freedom to operate” searches or opinions as well. These represent a different and more extensive type of search, and this is a different topic.

If it’s so obvious, why didn’t anyone think of it sooner?

Shoot the moon
Shoot the moon?

35 USC 103 “obviousness” rejections: The recent Federal Circuit case of Leo Pharmaceutical Products, Ltd. v. Rea, 2013 WL 4054937 suggests that the Federal Circuit may be starting to develop a new set of criteria and arguments that can help protect against hindsight bias in obviousness rejections.  In Leo, the Federal Circuit held that “to avoid the trap of hindsight”, probative evidence of nonobviousness should also be considered.  What was new was that the Leo court held that this can include both evidence of long felt but unsolved needs, and the length of time between the publication dates of the prior art (used in the obviousness rejection) and the claimed invention.  Specifically Leo court held that the existence of a large time gap between the prior art publications, and the invention, can also be used as indicia of non-obviousness.

How long must this time gap be?  The Leo court held that given a longstanding need, if the prior art citations used in the obviousness rejection are on the order of about 14-22 years old, then this is too long.  That is, such an extensive time delay is probative for non-obviousness because if the combination of such long known citations was actually obvious, then the combination would have been disclosed sooner.

An interesting consequence of this ruling is a novel (but risky) “shoot the moon” type of patent prosecution strategy for obviousness rejections.  That is, Leo can be interpreted as a Federal Court suggestion to find out how far back in time the relevant citations actually extend.  For example, if the prior art is actually 30 years old, but the citations used to demonstrate the prior art were only 5 years old, the following could be done:

  • Explore the roots of the 5 year old prior art citation
  • Trace back to the original 30 year old prior art
  • Disclose the 30 year old prior art citations
  • Make a Leo type argument

The logic seems sound – something known 30 years ago was also known 5 years ago.  The fact that the citations were not combined until the invention, despite a long-felt need, is probative that that the combination was not obvious.

This is arguably a “shoot the moon” legal strategy (i.e. a long shot).  So remember that as always, this is not legal advice, and Kids, don’t try this at home!