How to Find Out If Someone Has Already Patented Your Idea

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

How to Find Out If Someone Has Already Patented Your Idea

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

Checking to see if somebody has already patented your idea can save you valuable time and money. A patent—a type of intellectual property—is a government license that gives you a right or title to an invention for a set period of time. Obtaining a patent often requires a lot of planning and prep work on behalf of the inventor, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (U.S. PTO) requires certain fees throughout the process. So, it's strongly advised that you check to see if your invention is already patented before you start the process yourself.

Person using a laptop with the word "patent" displayed on the screen

Overview of the Patent Process

A patent gives the patent owner exclusive rights to exclude others from making, using or selling the patented invention for a set number of years. If the patent owner discovers that somebody is illegally producing, using or selling their patented invention, they can take legal recourse against the violator. When applying for a patent, the U.S. PTO checks your application against all other pending and existing patents to ensure that it's not too similar to any others. If it is, your patent application could be rejected. If the patent application is accepted, it's generally granted for 14-20 years from the date the application was filed, depending on the type of patent it is. To keep your patent enforceable, there may be periodic fees you must pay.

How to Find Out Whether Your Idea is Patented

Searching for an existing patent is fairly easy and straightforward. The U.S. PTO allows the public to search its entire database for patents. The following steps will help you through this part of the process. Alternatively, you can hire a patent attorney to run a patent search for you if you're uncomfortable doing so yourself.

Step 1. Go to the U.S. PTO's official website

Begin your search on the official website of the U.S. PTO office. Find the "Full-text and Image Database" to search existing patent applications and images. Any patent filed after 1975 should contain both an application and an image. Any patent filed between 1970 and 1975 is only searchable by image.

Step 2. Search the database using key terms and phrases

For this step, you want to be as thorough as possible. Enter any key terms or phrases that appear in or describe your patent idea. Repeat this search using as many different terms and phrases you believe are relevant. Identify what is unique or different about your invention and break down those options into search queries. Check all results against your invention. If you find existing patents that are similar to yours, you may still be able to patent your idea as long as you show on your application that your take on the patent is new. If no search results come up, you're in a good position to apply for a patent.

Step 3. Locate the closest Patent and Trademark Depository Library

If there is a Patent and Trademark Depository Library close to you, consider visiting the office and speaking to an employee. A person can help you with your patent research and answer any questions you have on similarities between your idea and an existing patent.

Conducting a thorough patent search can be done on your own, but sometimes you may want assistance anyway. For more information, contact an online service provider who can help get you started.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.

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