To count as an invention, your idea must contain at least one inventive step that is completely original or novel. That means there must be no record of that same inventive step anywhere in the world, at any time in history. That’s an extremely tough test, and most ideas proposed as inventions either fail it completely, or pass with such low marks that there isn’t much point carrying on. So grit your teeth, work through this essential Project and accept the possibility that your idea won’t make the grade - though don’t give up without looking at Project 3, which covers what you might be able to do with a good idea that isn’t as original as you thought.
Prior art is a legal term that when applied to your idea broadly means any evidence in any recorded form whatsoever that tends to demolish or chip away the novelty of your inventive step. In short, prior art means it’s been done before.
Point one: the scope of prior art is awesome. It isn’t limited by time or place or medium of communication. A prehistoric cave painting can be prior art. A cartoon in The Beano can be prior art. A totally unworkable and near-lunatic idea can be prior art. Basically, any thing in any form from any time in history and any place in the world can be prior art.
Point two: physical products on sale anywhere in the world represent only a tiny fraction of what counts as prior art, even if you include products no longer around. The place you have to go to find the rest – the massive underwater portion of the iceberg - is the patent system. This contains well over 50 million patents, with more arriving every day. (The European Patent Office reckons that over 80 per cent of all technical knowledge can be found in patents, and that 70 per cent of the information in patents isn’t available anywhere else.)
As an aspiring inventor you have to navigate this teeming ocean of prior art and not find anything that looks like your inventive step staring back at you.
What are the chances you’ve got something original? Statistically, not good. Is it difficult to find out? Sometimes yes, but mostly no – as long as you search effectively, which we’ll tell you how to do.
The inventor of a spanner system spent £30,000 on patent applications in several countries – remortgaging his house to pay for them, at a time when £30,000 would buy you a whole house - without first carrying out a patent search. In due course the (then) Patent Office found so much prior art that he was left with nothing worth protecting. Goodbye £30,000.
The inventor of an odour-banishing toilet bowl toured round with a complete working toilet, performing 1600 demonstration flushes before finding an interested company. Unfortunately he hadn't done a patent search because nobody ever told him he should. The company did its own search and found a ton of prior art. The idea was unprotectable, the deal collapsed and the inventor threw away his toilet.
Many inventors mess up through denial of prior art rather than ignorance of it. They prefer the dream to reality and don't want to go looking for evidence that might burst their bubble. It's a human nature thing so it happens a lot, but it would be far better for the image of invention if it didn't.
Originality (or novelty, the preferred legal term we’ll use from now on) matters for three main reasons:
We’re now going to take you step by step through two prior art search processes: a product search and a patent search. One isn’t a substitute for the other so you must do both – and do them before you do anything else, certainly before you spend serious money on your idea.
Why is prior art searching so important? There are both carrot and stick reasons.
It’s impossible to say. It could range from a few minutes if your first keywords are spot on and your idea is doomed by obvious prior art, to many hours over many weeks if nothing directly relevant leaps out and you have to try different keywords or look in detail at many patents. All we can really say is that you must be prepared to spend all the time it takes to be confident that you’ve done a proper job.
The golden rules are:
The following checklist is partly an action planner and partly a reminder of what matters. If you’re tempted to think ‘I don’t need to do all this stuff’, it may help to point out that we’ve modeled the checklist on questions professionals are very likely to ask if you want their advice, support or money. We therefore have to be stern and say that if you aim to be a respected and successful inventor, you can’t afford to duck any of it.
The key discipline of thinking of your idea not as an invention but as a business opportunity starts here.