At Your Fingertips

Look Before You Leap

Once you're online, keep in mind there is no cyber-patrol policing the accuracy of the information you discover. Anyone can put up any information they want on the Web, so sources have become a big issue. Most Web sites have a page titled "about us" or "who we are." I always go there first to find out who is behind the information I'm reading. Another tidbit: Any domain that ends with ".gov" is a government Web site and a reliable information source.

Once on the Internet, it's time to find those helpful nuggets of information. If you're at the point where you need to have a preliminary patent search performed to see if your idea is unique and patentable, access the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Web site at This site contains all the information you'll probably ever need to know about patents. Not only does it allow you to search its entire collection of issued patents, but it also has the forms you need to file for a patent. It also reports recent PTO news. This site is government-sponsored, however, so you won't find any fun or unusual information.

I prefer to use preliminary patent searches. This site was originally developed by IBM to help its researchers and developers perform quick and simple patent searches. Given the fact that for the last four years IBM has been the world leader in issued patents, and in 1996 alone received 1,867 issued patents, according to nonprofit trade association Intellectual Property Owners in Washington, DC, you can appreciate why the company developed this Web site.

In a very generous gesture, IBM made this site available to the public last year. It's easy to use and understand and provides bibliographic data, text and drawings of all patents issued since 1974. (The PTO site does not provide drawings.) This server also supports simple searching by keyword, phrase or patent number. It also has the capability for more advanced searching using Boolean methodology. (Simply stated, this means you can search in two fields rather than just one.)

Both the PTO and IBM sites have an online order form where copies of U.S. patents can be easily ordered for a fee with delivery by mail, fax or on CD-ROM. And both sites keep a current schedule of patent filing fees.

The National Inventor's Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, manages the site Known as the "Inventure Place," this site provides information on all past Hall of Fame winners. If you're interested in entering an inventor competition, this site can give you information about several contests, including the B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Program. The site's list of related Web sites is also very good.

We all know patent attorneys are expensive. So if you can get free advice from one, it's a valuable resource. One Web site does give a patent attorney's perspective on patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. The site,, is maintained by patent attorney John Moettli, who is also an inventor. His site has information areas that explain the many steps involved in getting an idea to market. It also includes some sample legal documents such as a nondisclosure agreement you can use when speaking with potential manufacturers, and an invention disclosure document that streamlines the communication between you and your patent attorney or agent, thus keeping your legal costs low.

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This article was originally published in the March 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: At Your Fingertips.

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