Are you first?

Every patent application describes an invention in sufficient detail for others to reproduce it – a bit like an instruction manual. At a certain time after filing, these applications are published in public databases, which are therefore a gold mine of technical information. Even if you are not filing a patent application, you can draw inspiration from others’ inventions.

If you do plan to file an application, a patent search is likely to reveal similar inventions. This will enable you to better differentiate your technology from what others have done before. Reading related patent publications is also one of the best ways to learn how to draft an application of your own.

Two inventors looking at their solar farm device
Nuno Correia and Carla Gomes (Portugal), Floating solar farm
mooring system that tracks the sun

The EPO’s free patent search database Espacenet contains over 150 million patent documents – all classified by technology using a special indexing system. Using this system, which covers everything from air-conditioning to zinc-based catalysts, or by entering your own keywords, you can focus on the technologies that interest you. Our video tutorials and regular training can improve your searches, while experts at over 300 local patent information centres across Europe can also offer guidance.

Getting ahead of the curve

As well as being a treasure trove of technical information, Espacenet has statistical features you can use to quickly sort and filter search results. This enables you, for instance, to find the leading companies or inventors in any technical field, who could then be your next supplier, customer or competitor. It might reveal a new entrant to your market with several recent patent filings, even though their products have not yet appeared in the shops. In short, you can use patent information to stay ahead of the market and anticipate future developments.

What if a patent application you find in the database already describes your invention? Does this mean you are blocked from going further? Not necessarily. A crosscheck against the application in our Register will tell you if a patent was ever granted, and if so whether it is still in force in the countries that matter to you. Many of the patent applications in our database never became patents, or the patent has expired or lapsed, so the odds are in your favour that you can use the technology they describe for free.

But if a patent is still in force, then you can contact the owner for a licence. This could be the start of a new business partnership, especially if you can improve on their technology. Equally, if there are lots of similar inventions to yours in the database, but none of them are in the shops, then consider asking those other inventors: “How come your invention never made it to market?”. Visit our introductory web page for more about using patent information to help your business.