What is “prior art” and why am I looking for it? To be granted a patent the invention in question must be “novel”, that is it must be new. Prior art is, at its most basic, any description of the invention published prior to applying for a patent. The revelation of prior art would defeat the application for a patent or render a patent invalid. Searching for prior art, or patent searching, is not an easy thing to do; the patent classification system is not intuitive and it must be remembered that the kinds of things you are searching for are often described in highly technical language and the search may require going beyond previously filed patents.
As I said, patent searching is hard and searchers don’t always discover the existence of prior art. Add to this the fact that in patent litigation there is a lot of money at stake so the discovery of prior art is a very valuable thing. In an attempt to overcome the difficulty of searching a company named Article One Partners has a unique method of searching for prior art. Rather than hiring a traditional patent search firm, Article One Partners, relying on the wisdom of crowds, invites amateurs to search for prior art and rewards successful searchers with money. This Slate article discusses the company and how one of their most successful searchers has earned over $75,000 working from home searching for prior art.
The entire process of patent searching is about to undergo a tremendous change. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has joined with the European Patent Office (EPO) to create a unified patent classification system called the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) system. The new merged system, set to take effect on January 1, 2013 and is based on the International Patent Classification (IPC) system. It is interesting to note that the US system has not been kept up to date, but with this harmonization plan, the joint system will be not only up to date, but will allow accessibility to US patent records back to 1920.