RFH (Researching-from-Home) with Patents

By Nina Szamocki-Hoffman and George Tebbutt, contributions by Andrew Flaxman

With the evermore uncertain circumstances of COVID-19, one thing is becoming clear: working from home, at least part time, is here to stay. With limited or no access to on-site resources such as labs, those working in Research and Development (R&D) may find they are reliant on only digital resources. This may present challenges in how to conduct your research effectively.

With this article, I hope to show that the patent system can provide helpful tools to aid your research and perhaps extend it to new areas, even while working from home. Even without the enforced RFH, exploring patent literature can, and should, be a standard part of initial studies in research and development.

In the world of patents, there is a well-known trade-off; in order to obtain protection (i.e. a monopoly on your invention for a limited time period), the invention must be published to enhance the world’s technical knowledge. This means that there is a wealth of information available to any researcher who is prepared to delve into the world of patent literature.

Exploring patent literature can be a valuable part of research and development, since it enables researchers to:

  • research or monitor developments in a specific technical field;
  • find solutions to problems you are working on; and
  • find out what your competitors are working on.

Researching a Specific Technical Field

Patent publications all around the world are categorised in highly detailed “classifications” to make innovations, in particular technological fields, easy to find. The “Combined Patent Classification” (CPC) provides an exceptionally intricate hierarchy of classes and sub-classes, in all technologies, which group patent publications from around the world into incredibly precise categories.

For example, an invention relating to an apparatus which automatically fills gas tanks, having an emergency valve based on special melting materials to block a passage might be classified in F16K17/383 which relates to safety valves actuated in consequence of extraneous circumstances of temperature where the valve comprises fusible, softening or meltable elements, and F17C5/007 relating to apparatuses for automated filling of individual gas tanks with gas under pressure.

All of the classifications can be found and searched on a free search tool provided by the European Patent Office called Espacenet®, which makes light work of navigating the hierarchy of classifications to find exactly what you are looking for.

The Espacenet® Classification Search (https://worldwide.espacenet.com/patent/cpc-browser#) allows a user to select one or more classifications and to view patent publications around the world in those classifications.

Such searches can be filtered (using the “Advanced Search” functionality within Espacenet®), for example by keywords, publication date, country, and by names (such as the name of an applicant or inventor). This enables anybody to research a precisely defined technological area, and to regularly monitor for new patent publications detailing innovations in that area.

Paid-for patent analytics services are available if you want to receive regular reports on publications in a specific technology area.

Searching for Solutions

Patent searches can also be used to find potential solutions to problems that you are working on. Using keywords relating to a problem or goal, together with a classification selection for a technology area can be a powerful way to find existing technologies or discoveries that may be useful for your research.

For example, you might be looking for low cost way of making a cut-resistant gloves. Classification D03D1/0041, relating to cut and abrasion resistant woven fabrics, could be a good place to look for a solution. Filtering this group for publications which contain the words “cost” and “glove” brings up 5 publications in total today. Alternatively, you could just filter for the words “low cost” which generates 23 results – easily reviewed with only a day or two of work. You may even find yourself inspired to make new innovations by technologies that you find in such a search!

Of course, it should always be borne in mind that any technology described in a patent publication may be protected by a corresponding granted patent, or an application which may be granted in the future. However, even if the technology of interest is protected, a patent search can still identify where or from whom you can find off-the-shelf solutions (e.g. from the patent owner), or it can identify technology which you may wish to licence, rather than designing your own solution from scratch.

A patent attorney can advise on the scope of protection of any particular patent or pending application and whether it may be relevant to your planned activities, or help any effort to design around a patent to achieve a similar effect or advantage. As always, it is advisable to consider whether third parties may have patent protection in place before bringing new products or services to market.

Keeping an Eye on Competitors

If working from home is hampering your own research, why not use the time to catch up on what your competitors are doing?

Patent applications are published 18 months after they are filed and are searchable based on the name of an applicant or inventor. Keeping a watch on your competitors’ patents can help you identify the direction their research is taking, and alert you to any patents that may prove problematic for your own plans (e.g. future product launches).

Using the free advanced search function in Espacenet® (https://worldwide.espacenet.com/patent/search), you can apply filters for patent publications by applicant, and by publication date.

A number of services offer automatic competitor monitoring services for a fee, or you can ask a patent attorney with searching capabilities to take care of competitor monitoring. At Haseltine Lake Kempner we have a specialist searching capability, HLK Analytics, where we can do all of this for you.

So next time you find yourself at a loss for how to advance your research, perhaps you could have a go at using the patent searching tools on Espacenet® to find what you are looking for.