Those clever people at Google have recently launched a new “Prior Art Finder” which enables users to search sources including the United States Patent & Trademark Office and the European Patent Office to see if any prior art already exists in relation to an idea they have, and so ensure the idea is novel.
Patents are only granted for an invention that is novel and not obvious and ‘prior art’ covers all information that has been disclosed to the public in any form about a related invention before a given date, usually the filing date or priority date of the prospective patent. Any prior art found is likely to disqualify a patent application.
Google’s Prior Art Finder tries to find elements associated with a patent and restricts the search to prior art published before the priority date on the patent. Some commentators have noted that it might aid patent trolls, (those individuals or companies who aggressively enforce patents against alleged infringers with no intention to exploit the patents themselves) as it could be used to draw out information on matters which arise after a patent has been submitted – rather than before submission.
There are also some prior art databases which Google will not have access to so perhaps its use is best focused on preliminary searches. Presumably it wouldn’t have helped Samsung avoid their rather expensive patent infringement skirmish with Apple but it does seem to be an extremely helpful tool and it will be interesting to see to what extent it becomes part of the standard patent application process.