Patent search engines aim to open innovations to the world

The Lens open search engine provides access to 100 million documents in 90 countries, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office makes Chinese patent documentation searchable via the PTO website.

The search for patent information is like finding a needle in a haystack — make that a million haystacks. Inventors have to scour the globe to identify evidence or “prior art” of their ideas to ensure their work is original, a real innovation, before it can be protected with a patent. Recently, two tools have been developed to help innovators speed their patent research.

Richard Jefferson, a scientist and intellectual property reformer and the Queensland University of Technology, last month officially launched, “the Lens,” an open search engine that points to patent information for inventions in 100 million documents in 90 countries. 

The Lens is an effort at “innovation cartography,” says Jefferson, which he describes as “mapping the problem-solving landscape so that anyone can navigate their way through the teachings, the minefields, the partnerships and the pitfalls present in the patent system, to fast-track real innovation on a safer and more level playing field."

The Lens already hosts several tools for analysis and exploration of the patent literature, including graphical representations of search results to advanced bioinformatics tools. In 2014 developers will be working to create forms of the Lens that can allow all annotations, commentary and sharing to be behind firewalls for those who need it, without forsaking the open and inclusive cyberinfrastructure, the organization said on its website.

In an interview with Scientific American, Jefferson, a direct descendent of U.S. patent system founder President Thomas Jefferson, says the U.S. patent system is “in dire straights,” the victim in part of companies that have “become incredibly skilled in hiding the ball in intentionally opaque patents.”

The purpose of the Lens, he says, is to “render so much clarity that we have the tools for looking at policy and figuring out how to change it.”

The launch of the Lens follows an announcement in July 2013 that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had launched its own Global Patent Search Network. Teresa Stanek Rea, the Acting Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property said the office hoped the network would, “make patent research easier and more comprehensive by providing streamlined search capability to multiple international patent collections.”

In launching its network the PTO also announced it had worked with the Chinese government to make Chinese patent documentation searchable via the PTO website. 

Users can search documents, including published documents and granted patents, recorded from 2008 to 2011. The records are available in in English machine translations, which PTO acknowledged could sometimes generate awkward wording, but “provided an excellent way to determine the gist of the information in a foreign patent.”

In the announcement, Rea also said the PTO patent search network is the first patent project to use cloud technology, which would allow the agency to respond to the needs of the public and examiners faster.

NEXT STORY: 'Trust but verify' is so last year

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