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Inventors will frequently ask why they need to spend the money on a US patent search, and all too frequently believe patent searches are unnecessary. There are various iterations of this question, starting out with “why do I need a patent search, I’ve already searched myself and cannot find anything,” to “there is nothing on the market like their invention, so why would a US patent search be necessary?” After all how could someone have ever come up with their invention?
Surveying the market is a wise first step, but there may be patents lurking. There are various reasons for this, but one big reason is because an independent inventor or small company came up with the invention previously, filed and obtained a patent, but then lacked the resources or know-how to bring the product to market. Then when others came up with the same or similar idea and found that issued patent they abandoned the project and never took the product to market because they could not own the exclusive rights, which meant that if the product succeeded on the market a larger competitor could simply copy with impunity.
It is also a wise first step to do your own patent search if you are an inventor. Spending time looking for related patents and perhaps even more importantly reading related patents is a very useful endeavor. If you can find a patent reference that you feel is too close for comfort then you have saved the money associated with paying for a professional patent search and/or hiring a patent attorney or patent agent.
Notwithstanding, I am always skeptical when I hear inventors say that they have done their own US patent search and have found nothing. Patent searching is as much an art as it is a skill, and if you are not familiar with advanced search strategies it is not surprising that you are unable to find anything too close, but rest assured there are always patents to find that are at least similar in some ways. I have put together a patent search tutorial, which will help give you some strategies. So absolutely start with your own patent search, but at some point before spending thousands of dollars to obtain a patent you should obtain a professional patent search and patentability opinion.
If you hire a professional patent search firm you may want to also consider adding an international patent search. Some search firms may already include an international patent search in the price, or at least a search of certain foreign databases. While US patent searches are essential, international patent searches are preferable if you can afford the extra cost.