If you have an idea for an invention and you're wondering whether anyone else may have already patented it, you need to talk to Stephen van Dulken. He is the expert curator in the Patents Information Service of The British Library, and as such may be a little hard to reach. So, you could let him talk to you through one of his books on inventions. His latest, published in 2004 by New York University Press and copyrighted by The British Library Board, is American Inventions: A History of Curious, Extraordinary, & Just Plain Useful Patents. It's a tour de force that describes the source, background, and details of many inventions of the last 200 years. While the writing style isn't entertaining, the stories are, such as the background behind the invention of stoves for drive-through restaurants (where you can gain weight), and the design of such exercise equipment as stairmasters (where you can work it off).
It's not clear from his book how van Dulken did his research, though he does list some helpful websites for his readers. For example, anyone interested in Thomas Edison's patents—all 1,093 of them—can go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4387-532. While it might be interesting to spend a weekend afternoon perusing, there are better places to check out if you are looking for patent information during the work day.
The most obvious stop, of course, is the U.S. Patent Office website, www.uspto.gov. Using a keyword approach, you can look up virtually any patent. You can also check out the website for National Society of Inventors, http://deafandblind.com/inventors.html. Despite the goofy url and a page design that is no threat to win a award, it is a comprehensive site with links to patent information and a list of inventor clubs by state.
Another source is www.globalspec.com, which has partnered with Information Handling Services Inc. (www.ihs.com) to enable keyword searches of patents.
Then, there is www.patentcafe.com, a network of information and global patent data that was launched in 1996. The site includes an Inventors Starter Kit (for $70.00), which has information about protecting inventions, preparing for manufacturing and licensing, and tips for avoiding scams.
Recently, Patent Cafe debuted its Open Source Software (OSS) Patent Search Engine, enabling searches of OSS patents worldwide. IBM provided a big boost to the site launch by pledging open access to key innovations covered by 500 IBM software patents. The upshot, says a press release announcing the move: Qualifying software developers will be able to develop their OSS software without having to worry about IBM asserting these patents against them.
When you go to the lavishly designed (maybe overdesigned, actually) website, click on the search engine. You can't miss it. If you want to log in anonymously, no problem. You can do so temporarily. It's a natural-language search engine that lets you describe the concept of the software function you are looking for. The website claims that the U.S. Patent Office, by comparison, can only return patents that match key words that may not match the exact words used in older patents. That charge sounds a little sketchy to me, but "natural language" does have a nice ring to it. You'll have to judge for yourself if it's an advantage.
Or, you can just read Stephen van Dulken's book. It may take longer, but you'll learn some interesting facts about the inventions and the inventors themselves.
Reach Teague at firstname.lastname@example.org.