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The past few decades have seen big changes in the patent landscape and how patent information is discovered and used. Ann Chapman reflects on some of the trends

Patent information is widely recognised as playing an increasingly critical role in global technological and economic development.

It is not only a vital resource – it is estimated that as much as 70 per cent of the technical information found in patent documents is not published anywhere else – but also of great economic and legal value. Recent years have seen a much greater awareness of the important role that patents play in legal, technology and business environments, with high-profile patent battles between technology giants playing out in the courts (and the media) on a regular basis. Access to patent information is becoming ever more crucial.

Users of patent information include individual inventors looking to protect their new ideas, research and development institutions, and patent or IP law and patent search specialists. They use patent information for a variety of reasons including: gaining knowledge about the state of the art for a certain technology; monitoring competitor activity; obtaining an overview of the market to identify trends or gaps; and identifying potential licensors for an invention.

Challenges of patent information

Since our company was first formed in 1996, the patent-information industry has undergone significant changes. The most striking of these is the huge increase in the volume of patent data available, which has brought into play developments around cross-lingual searching, classification systems and data quality controls. According to the WIPO Intellectual Property Indicators Report 2012 edition, for the first time in 2011 the total number of patent applications filed worldwide exceeded the two million mark, with SIPO (the Chinese Intellectual Property Office) recording a staggering 72 per cent of total growth in applications between 2009 and 2011. The report also highlighted technology trends revealed by looking at patent filings – including the growth in applications for energy and digital communications technologies.

Online patent search tools have made the exploitation of this information more time-and cost-effective, but providers and users must overcome several challenges to harness the power of patent information effectively.


One of the obstacles for patent-information providers and users today is that of language barriers. One application may be filed in many different countries and in many different languages to ensure wider protection. In addition there has been a dramatic increase in patent filings especially in non-Latin languages from Asian countries such as Japan, China and Korea. These have made the issue of accessibility more acute.

Requesting a professional translation of the patent document is an option, but it is a costly one and usually reserved for later on in a search process rather than for preliminary freedom-to-operate searches, for example.

Patent-database providers have been working to help searchers overcome language barriers. The provision of searchable machine translations and on-demand machine translation tools is now reinforced by the more recent addition of cross-lingual search tools such as the Language Explorer in Minesoft’s PatBase, which is powered by WIPO’s CLIR (cross-lingual information retrieval) system. Such tools allow users to translate keywords or terms from their native language into multiple other languages in order to produce a list of synonyms for an effective keyword search.

Making the actual user interface available in different languages is another way in which patent data is being made more accessible for users – individual patent offices often provide search interfaces in their native language and in English (such as SIPO, the Chinese Patent Office or Depatisnet from the German Patent Office). Commercial database providers echo this trend – PatBase, for example, is available in English, Chinese and Japanese while the end-user PatBase Express interface is also available in French, German and Spanish.

Classification systems

A second challenge when considering patent information is that of classification. Patent documents are classified by patent offices according to the fields of technology to which they relate. This makes it easier to search patent information because searchers can use the classification codes to zoom in on precise areas of technology relevant to their field of work. Used in conjunction with keyword searching, classifications enable more efficient searching of patent information.

Since patent examiners in different patent offices use different classification systems, searchers need to be familiar with several schemes to search efficiently. The main schemes were, until the end of 2012, the IPC (from the World Intellectual Property Organization), ECLA (from the European Patent Office) and USPC (from the US Patent & Trademark Office).

The European and US patent offices have come together for a joint classification system 

However, in January the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) was launched. This aims to bring the European and US patent systems closer together, and is seen as a significant step towards greater harmonisation in the patent system. The new classification combines the USPC and ECLA schemes, and should give patent searchers better access to detailed classes for inventions.

Patent database providers have moved quickly to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible for their users by incorporating classification search tools such as the Classification Finder in PatBase. This allows users to navigate around an unfamiliar classification by using keywords to search the class definitions in order to retrieve the relevant classifications.

Volume and quality of data

The ever-increasing volume of patent data has inevitably raised the issue of quality. As global patent filings increase year on year and more data is made available digitally, maintaining quality levels becomes more challenging.

Although patent data is freely available via proprietary patent office sites and free online databases such as GooglePatent, commercial patent database providers can add additional value to the raw data through human and programmatic quality checks.

Aggregated databases contain patent data drawn from more than 100 patent publishing bodies worldwide – in PatBase the total data volume currently exceeds 30Tb. To add value to what is, in some jurisdictions (but far from all), freely-available data, pre and post-processing quality-control practices are strictly adhered to in order to ensure quality data is available to searchers. For example, in PatBase, source data collections from countries such as India and Thailand are manually checked when they first arrive and, if necessary, manually corrected by the data team. When a patent family (the same invention patented in different countries) gets new text, the family is reassessed to see if a machine translation needs to be added, replaced or deleted. Examples, paragraphs and claims are automatically tagged in order to facilitate searching of specific sections of the text of patent documents.

While providers of patent information must strive to maintain quality, the companies that are the end-users of patent information must find a way of managing the large volume of data being processed internally. Patent-information management or archiving systems allow organisations to man age the influx of new patent applications of their own – or to monitor the growth of competitor patent portfolios, creating a permanent, searchable repository of relevant patent information. The possibility to apply internal classification codes to patent data means that companies can categorise it according to their own specifications. Such systems also create greater awareness of the value of patent information within the company, and simplify and contextualise patent information for end-users, such as those in research and development.

Besides protection of new inventions, the primary role of patents is that of disclosure. Patent information encourages innovation and economic growth by publishing known and new technical information that may never be published elsewhere. While the increase in the volume and availability of patent information poses challenges such as language barriers and quality maintenance, patent information publishers and database providers are working continually to make it as accessible as possible.

Ann Chapman is director of Minesoft, a provider of patent-information tools including the PatBase database and Patent Archive, which helps organisations manage their patent data