Google has launched a service that makes it easier to search for patents granted in the US.
Unveiled on Thursday, Google Patent Search allows users to search by keyword, patent number, inventor and filing date. Individual patents can then be scrolled through and searched, and images within the patent can be viewed and zoomed in on.
Google Patent Search takes its information from the public database of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Although this information is openly available, it is currently difficult to search. Google hopes its service can help inventors and programmers find out which innovations have already been granted a patent.
It can be found here. This page displays images from five randomly selected patents every time it is accessed. This includes patents on tennis racquets, popcorn machines and the flying machine patented by the Wright Brothers at the start of the 20th century. Interestingly, Google credits the patent to "OLTVILLE WRIGHT", suggesting its text-scanning system may struggle to read the older patent documents.
At present the system does not include patents that have been granted in the last few months. Nor does it include patent applications that have not yet been accepted or rejected.
According to an FAQ on the site, the search giant is planning to expand the tool to cover other patent-granting bodies in the future. This could include those granted by the UK Patent Office.
Patents are meant to give an inventor legal protection for their innovations, in return for sharing the details of their work with the world. However, critics claim that some patents should never have been granted as they do not cover genuinely new or innovative developments. In particular, there is widespread unease in some quarters that software patents are granted in the US.
The situation in Europe regarding software patents is more confused. A European directive that could have led to the widespread patenting of software was rejected last year, and in October the UK High Court ruled that a form-filling application could not be patented.
However, software patents are not explicitly outlawed and some have been granted.
Critics of the patent system have called for more outside scrutiny of patent applications. The UK Patent Office has said it will consider bringing in such a peer-review body. If created, such a body could benefit from Google's patent search system, if it was expanded to take in the UK's existing patents.
An image from the Wright Brothers' patent application for their 'flying machine'