One of the first steps of the invention process is to determine if your idea is indeed a new one. But I feel like many inventors are a little wary of doing prior art searches, probably because they’d rather not discover the truth and “shatter” their hopes. But finding out that prior art (any patent that has already been approved) that is very similar to your idea doesn’t necessarily spell doom for your invention!
There are several ways to search for prior art. Before the Internet, I would visit several local stores and scan the shelves. If I didn’t see my idea, then I thought that was a pretty good “go”. But with the advent of the Internet, doing a more thorough prior art search is much easier. Every inventor must do so. Use the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website, USPTO.gov. They show you how to perform a search. You can also search for prior art through “Google patents”.
There are also many legal firms who advertise their prior art search skills. This isn’t necessary. Even if you’re paying them, it’s unlikely they’re going to comb through thousands of patents any more closely than you are. You might be tempted to use one, but think carefully. I had one firm tell me my idea was original, only to have another find prior art that conflicted. The overall message is: you are not going to be able to do a perfect job. What if someone has filed a patent or provisional patent application with similar prior art? There is no way for you to know. So do some research, but don’t obsessively search.
If you do find prior art that is very similar to your idea (or the same), call the inventor whose name is listed on the patent! Don’t give up on your idea immediately. Ask if you can license the prior art for a given amount of time, with the goal of bringing the product to market. Ask why the idea never made it to market. Were they just unsuccessful salesmen? Or is there a problem inherent with the idea you aren’t aware of. These individuals have already spent the money to file the patent – learn from them! Maybe you can even team up.
Do what you can, but don’t let searching for prior art take over your inventing process.