If you've ever dreamed up an ingenious new invention and then wondered if someone else has already made it, Google Inc.'s new patent search offering is for you.
The new site, www.google.com/patents, lets anyone search for U.S. patents by keyword, patent number, inventor and filing date. Users can view a scanned image of the original patent and zoom in on pages.
The main search page displays five different random patents each time the page is visited. Recent inventions that popped up include toy skunk, pocket protector, toupee and doll having delayed wetting and crying action.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) already allows anyone to search its site for patent documents. But Google's offering may have some advantages.
"The existing Web sites have patents that you can view so it's not that the information isn't there. The problem is finding it and that's where Google's expertise comes in," said Mike Overy, secretary for the Wessex Round Table of Inventors, an inventors club in England. Overy formerly developed products for Nokia Corp. and is now a freelance inventor.
Google said that like its Web search technology, the patent search site uses a number of different signals to evaluate how relevant each patent is to a user's query and then determines results algorithmically.
The USPTO is not the only patent office to offer an online patent search facility. The European Patent Office also hosts such a service, covering patents from European countries, the U.S., Canada and other patent authorities. Overy finds that database good but not very user friendly, he said.
Discovering existing patents is critical for inventors, whose ability to make money on an invention could be severely reduced by an existing patent, Overy said.
While Google's new offering may ease what is often an incredibly tedious job, it may not be able to fully solve the problem, he said. One issue inherent in new inventions is naming them. "If you've invented what you think is the first gizmo whatsit and you type that into a search engine, you won't find much because the other person who invented it called it something different," he said.
Google's patent search covers 7 million patents. The database doesn't include patents issued in the last few months but Google "looks forward to expanding our coverage in the future," according to the frequently asked questions section of its site.
Although Google's database only lists U.S. patents for now, the company said it hopes to expand the patent offices it includes and languages it supports.
Presumably the site will one day allow users to save and print patents too: a note at the bottom of a posting about the new service on the Google blog says that a reference to saving and printing has been removed since Google is still working on the capabilities.