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September 2000
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Web Watch

The Internet Holds the Patent On Patent Searches

A plethora of sites, both free and via subscription, can help patent lawyers stay current on fast-changing law.

By Robert J. Ambrogi

The Internet Holds the Patent On Patent SearchesPITY THE poor patent lawyer. As if searching for a patent was not hard enough, try first deciding where to begin from among the myriad of search sites offered on the Internet.

They form a confusing array indeed. While some are free and some are not, it is not always clear what the pay sites offer that the free ones lack. In some cases, seemingly competing companies share common ownership and even common URLs.

What follows is an attempt to sort through this tangle and provide at least a basic guide to the various locales on the Web for searching patents.

We start at the source. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provides complete, online access to its two patent databases, one for searching bibliographic information only and another for searching full text.

Both include all patents issued since Jan. 1, 1976, up to the most recent weekly issue date, usually Tuesday. Search either database by patent number or by using Boolean phrases. A manual feature allows more complex searches, combining elements such as field searching, date-range searching, word truncation, and phrase searching.

European Patents

For European patents, the gateway to Europe's network of patent databases is Espacenet hosted by the European Patent Office. The free service allows users to search all patent applications published in the past two years by the EPO and WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Documents are contained in the database in their original language. Search for them by publication number, application number, priority number, publication date, applicant's name, inventor's name, technical field or title text.

Results list full bibliographic details, plus an image of each of the pages. The service can also be used to find English-language abstracts of some 30 million patent documents from throughout the world, dating as far back as the 1960s

These searches display the bibliographic data and an English-language abstract for each document. If available, drawings and full text are also provided.

What may be the best place on the Web to search and view patent documents is the free Delphion Intellectual Property Network, originally created by IBM. It contains the complete text and images of all U.S. patents issued since 1974, as well as extended bibliographic text and some images back to 1971.

In addition to U.S. patents, Delphion includes European applications and patents since 1979, Japanese patent abstracts since 1976, and patent documents from more than 100 countries issued under the WIPO Patent Cooperation Treaty. It recently added the INPADOC patent collection, with patent-family documents from 65 patent offices and legal status information from 22 patent offices, dating back to 1968.

These databases can be searched by key word, patent number, or using Boolean connectors. Advanced search features allow queries using multiple fields. A browsing feature allows users to review specific classifications and identify topics and patents of interest. All collections are cross-referenced and forward and backward linked to all other referencing documents for easy access to related information.

Corporate Intelligence

Corporate Intelligence, an IP portal offering gateways to various patent search services - companies all owned by the parent Information Holdings.

For the uninitiated, differentiating among these services is not easy, requiring a first-time visitor to spend a good deal of time figuring out which does what. The companies collected under this umbrella are:

MicroPatent, home to PatentWeb, a service for ordering patent documents and searching patent databases.

At a cost of $4.95 each, users can download documents from PatentWeb's "standard collection," which includes U.S. patents since 1964, European patent applications since 1978, European patents granted since 1980, and PCT applications since 1978.

A "special collection" includes U.S. patents from 1790-1963, Japanese applications since 1984 and issuance since 1992, and various patent documents from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Russia and the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Asia, South and Central America, and Africa. Documents from the special collection cost $8.95 each.

MicroPatent permits full-text searching at a cost of $95 a day or $7,500 a year. Its full-text databases include U.S. patents since 1976, European patents since 1988, PCT documents since 1983, and Japanese patents since 1976. For $35 a day or $2,500 a year, users can search only abstracts and bibliographic data.

Optipat provides U.S. patent and trademark information products and services, including file histories, document delivery, and custom CD-ROM collections. provides online ordering of patents back to 1790, for delivery in electronic or hard-copy formats.

FaxPat provides copies and file histories of U.S. and foreign patents, trademarks and copyrights. Documents can be ordered through its Web site and delivered electronically, by fax or in hard copy.

Natural Language

Natural-language searching is the feature that distinguishes PatentMiner from other patent-search services. Users conduct searches by formulating questions in plain English, without having to use Boolean or other structured search languages. Results are listed by their relevancy to the query, meaning those that best match the query are listed first.

PatentMiner includes full-text U.S. patents from 1974 forward and is updated every two weeks. Bibliographic citations, abstracts and claims are available from 1971 to 1974.

The cost is $12.50 per search, capped at $49 per 24-hour period. Charges are incurred only when you click the "show results" button. There is no charge to search bibliographic fields or to view the full text of a specific patent. PatentMiner is integrated with the Delphion database to provide document images.

French Service

The French online information company Questel-Orbit maintains QPAT-WW, a full-text database of U.S. and European patents. It includes the full text of all U.S. patents issued since Jan. 1, 1974, as well as full-text European A patents since 1987 and B patents since 1991. The databases include full-page images of most of the patents.

Although a paid subscription is required for access to the full-text databases, visitors can search and display patent abstracts for free by filling out a registration form. Paying customers can purchase a subscription to either the U.S. or European database or purchase access to both. A subscription to one database is $22.95 a day or $2,355 a year, or, for both databases, $37.95 a day or $4,240 a year.


Still in beta testing as of press time, promises to deliver complete, multi-page USPTO documents via your Web browser, using a compressed-file format that speeds download time.

Its archive contains full text, bibliographic information and images for all U.S. patents issued since 1976. In addition, it includes complete patent images for all U.S. utility patents since 1920. The database is updated weekly.

During beta testing, the service was free, with no information available on pricing once testing is done.

GetThePatent includes a feature by which users can search the USPTO site, then, with the click of a button on their browser, return to GetThePatent to download the patent using its multi-page, compressed-file formatting.

Software Institute

The Software Patent Institute, offers free access to its Database of Software Technologies. The database is unique in that, in place of patents and current trade information, it compiles descriptions of software technologies from sources not readily available online or in electronic form.

Sources include computer manuals, older textbooks and journal articles, conference proceedings, and computer science theses. SPI suggests that the database should be useful in tracking whether a proposed technology has already been developed in one form or another. Unfortunately, the site appears to be updated only sporadically.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains |a searchable database of Agricultural Biotechnology Patents. It includes only patents from 1994 and 1995, and there is no indication on the site that further material is to be added.

The one striking feature of Chemical PatentsPlus! is its presentation of chemical structures in 3-D. For patents that include chemical models, clicking on the model and dragging the mouse rotates the model to any view. Pressing the "enter" key shows alternate views of the model.

The site offers searching in any of a variety of patent data fields or combinations.

You can download patents in a choice of text and image formats, as individual pages or complete patents. Searching is free, as are abstracts and titles. Downloading a complete patent costs $4.

The database covers full text U.S. patents since 1975, with partial coverage since 1971, and complete page images from 1995.

Robert J. Ambrogi is a contributing editor of LTN and director of the American Lawyer Media News Service.

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