Free patent searches: at what cost?

When using patent information services, you get what you pay for

There is a quiet revolution brewing in the world of IP searches. Knowledge on any subject is within a few short key strokes. Ninety percent of the world’s data has been generated in the last two years, and the amount of electronic information doubles every other year. As a result, it’s tempting to assume pay-model information searches have become a dinosaur, a vestige of the past comparable to typewriters and video cassette recorders, right?


Now, more than ever, researchers and information professionals need ways to cut through this overwhelming noise to gain actionable intelligence for their work. More often than not, that requires a professional.

In the patent searching world, braving an avalanche of information on one’s own comes with a cost of doing business; a cost many firms simply cannot afford when it comes to protecting their brands. From unmitigated risk and liabilities to lost man-hours and decreased productivity, there is a cost when it comes to doing things for free.

The real cost of free

There are few commodities that are more valuable to a company than their intellectual property. While free patent searches are promoted as fast, carefree solutions, the practice can easily squander key opportunities with enormous cost ramifications, both visible and hidden. “Free patent search tools are not necessarily more cost-effective than fee-based databases, once you factor in your manpower costs,” the European Patent Office writes on their website. “Fee-based services offer added value in terms of speed, indexing, textual enhancement, formatting and display of results. You should also be aware of the limitations of free products.”

Between time and effort spent on searching disparate data sources, the presence of too much bad data from too many careless agencies, redundant work and – most paramount – the risk of infringement of others’ rights and subsequent litigation, the fallout from a free patent search could be backbreaking.

The fallout of free

Still, some firms may be tempted to shave expenses by using a free search. But how much would it really save in the long run? If you’re unlucky enough to be hit with an infringement case, you could be spending far more than you bargained for. Consider these hefty sums just in the last three years that have been levied against companies in the wake of improper diligence or relying on inferior data or analysis related to their portfolios.

  • Teva and Sun Pharmaceutical paid $2.15 billion to Pfizer and Takeda Pharmaceutical for infringement of a heartburn-relieving drug (June 12, 2013);
  • Zimmer paid $228 million to Stryker for infringing its surgical irrigation patents (August 9, 2013);
  • Samsung Electronics paid $1.05 billion to Apple for infringement of IP rights covering the iPhone (August 24, 2012);
  • DuPont paid $1 billion in royalty damages to Monsanto for infringing Monsanto’s ‘Roundup-ready’ seed patent (August 8, 2012).

What is gained when you spend?

Professional patent searchers are accustomed to the challenge of scaling a mountain of information. From basic document retrieval to intermediate-level prior art or patentability searching, to advanced infringement and validity work, professionals know what to look for.

Thomson Innovation, which is home to Derwent World Patents Index (DWPI), is ranked the number one patent search and analysis service, according to a research report by Outsell Inc. Users can leverage a full range of proprietary, high-end analytics and advanced search techniques including patent-pending Smart Search, while being supported by an expertly trained staff of several hundred editors that standardise, correct and enhance patent records. Essentially, users can turn raw patent information into actionable intelligence with the value-added DWPI database.

Here are some real world examples of how DWPI can stop a faulty search dead in its tracks.

  • Expanded patent titles: The public filing for patent WO2005087578 reads as follows: “Prime minister boat which is become independent we clear up and to have the air chamber.” That title – which appears crudely converted to English – is far from complete. Users of DWPI would see the full title as: “Boat having plural independent air chambers is provided to be absolutely safe from risks that the boat is punctured, to inject and exhaust air into or out of the plural air chambers at the same time.” The missing words in the incomplete title can change the meaning of the entire patent, and by not getting the full picture, it could put a company in danger of infringement.
  • Enhanced relevant search results: An “endoscope” is a medical device that can be described in a multitude of ways, such as a “five-element optical device,” without ever using the word “endoscope” in the description. A US Patent and Trademark Office search of the term unveils 594 records, whereas the same search across the same data set in a value-added database generates 1,245. The DWPI’s search functions and team of editors can review all of these records and steer a company clear of any murky legal waters.

F-R-E-E: A four-letter word to patent searchers

Free patent search offerings might make sense for a novice searcher simply exploring a topical area, but when it comes to protecting a brand and understanding an innovation landscape, the old adage of “you get what you pay for” rings true. These examples underscore why professionals need accurate, curated content; as well as the volatility that exists when firms try to do without it.

Bob Stembridge is customer relations manager of the IP Solutions business of Thomson Reuters

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