Before the age of the automobile and long-distance communication, patent searching wasn’t even an option for most inventors. Instead, they would rely on the patent searches that were conducted by the patent office examiners, who were required to do so before any patent was issued. Today, it is no surprise that patent examiners are still required to conduct searches for “prior art” (earlier technology) before any patent can be issued.
So, one might ask, “why is it even necessary to have a search performed before filing a patent application?” The simple answer is that it’s not. These days, however, preliminary patent searches are performed (before filing for a patent) so that the inventor may avoid the cost of an expensive patent application process. If the inventor can uncover readily available prior art that would render the invention either obvious or not new, then he or she will know beforehand that it wouldn’t be worth it to pursue a patent that doesn’t have a very good chance of being granted.
Incidentally though, here’s a piece of information that is just as key as the results of any patent search: At any given time, there are many, many patent applications going through the process of examination. Most of these applications are not available for anyone to search… ANYONE. The applications are held with the patent office in complete secrecy. And, when you consider the reality that many ideas occur to several individuals at or about the same time, you then realize that even the most thorough patent search humanly possible may not do you any good at all. Only a patent examiner can tell you about much of the prior art.
Now then, if it seems to you altogether redundant to perform work that will only be repeated later as a necessary step— repeated by the only people who can actually make a ruling on your case, then you are not alone. As a matter of fact, exactly half of the fee that the USPTO charges anyone to file for a utility patent goes directly into paying for the examiner to conduct a prior art search.
Yet, the patent process was never intended to break inventors. Sure, the USPTO filing fee for a utility patent has always been about the same as the cost of feeding a family of eight very well, for a month. But, that’s geared traditionally to discourage people from filing too many patent applications for frivolous ideas.
Then, why do patent practitioners charge so much to file your patent application for you? The answer is, because they can. That doesn’t mean we all do, however. Some of us actually empathize with the inventors, and we don’t feel right about charging thousands of dollars more than necessary, for only a single step in the process of making the idea an actual success. There are different reasons for that, but what it amounts to is quality performance for a much lower price.
So, just how important is it to conduct an extensive patent search? Well, that all depends on how much you stand to lose, if you don’t.