Patent analysis guide

Description

Governments that grant patents file the entire documentation as public record.  With the advent of computers and the internet, these records are readily accessible.  Patent analysis exploits this information to help a firm in strategic planning, assessing its competitiveness in specific technologies, and evaluating competitors and technological forecasts.  Patents tend to contain very specialized terminology and technology-specific verbiage, so it may be necessary to have patent attorneys and subject matter experts on hand to assuage some of the complexity.

There are two basic types of patent analysis: internal and external.  If a firm has the resources, it is ideal to conduct both simultaneously.  Internal patent analysis is a valuable asset to business intelligence, providing a firm with the ability to assess its own technological portfolio, and allowing it to maneuver its own position in a technology class or industry.  Internal analysis may also help a firm in identifying technologies it does not use that it may want to consider selling or leasing for profit.

External patent analysis is the more popular approach, since managers tend to be extremely interested in their competitors.  External patent analysis allows a firm to predict where its competitors are moving, who may be developing technologies together, and whether or not there may be possible infringements (either on their part or their competitor’s).   The analyst may choose to conduct research of specific competitors, the technology class, or both.


Strengths

  • Many applications: Provides invaluable analytic support to a firm’s IP management, R&D and technology management, human resources, mergers, acquisitions, and strategic planning; it can also serve as technological indicators and warning.
  • Diverse analytical products: Specific analytical criteria and techniques may be modified to suit the analyst’s unique needs. The analyst’s framework can determine the nature of database searches and related collection and collation processes.
  • Reduces uncertainty: This is the best tool for identifying sources of innovation and technological change. A firm can mitigate the chances of being surprised by new and increasingly advanced technologies developed by both its competitors, and those firms developing a particular technology from outside the traditional industry.
  • Dependable data: The data that is mined for patent and bibliometric analyses is entirely credible, reliable, and objective, because it flows directly from legally bound government databases. Regardless of the specific type of data required for analysis, world patent databases are highly accessible, easily searchable, and available in an increasing number of languages and countries.
  • Customizable analytic and visualization tools are widely available: Although relatively costly, there are many software options available for purchase online.These programs allow the user to collect, manipulate, and analyze data and create customized visualizations for better dissemination of key analytical findings.

Weaknesses

  • Large volume of data: Searching patents and technology trends can yield seemingly overwhelming amounts of data. It is important to stay focused on relevant data and technologically significant filings and issuances.
  • Patents require review: The majority of patents represent mere technological and innovative nuances. Publications and issued patents are largely comprised of company-specific and other minute technology improvements; very few patents represent drastic shifts in innovation. Technological and legal expertise may be necessary to streamline and expedite the process.
  • Human and typographical errors: Since patent analysts rely solely on patent database information, it is critical to evaluate ALL relevant patents to get a comprehensive search. Patent officers tend to enter data differently, so care must be taken to account for all possible occurrences of a company, inventor, assignee name, and other relevant data. This is especially important when examining patents from multinational countries, given translation issues.
  • Methodological limitations: Because of the method’s use of commercial data, patent analysis is primarily limited to the field of business and competitive intelligence, with few implications into the national security realm.
  • Denial and deception: Remember that some companies want to hide the technology they are developing. They may forego the patent process and keep the invention as a trade secret. Companies may also have the patent “assigned” to an academic institution, individual, etc., so it is not associated with a patent, but owns the technology behind-the-scenes. For additional fees, a company may also choose to have its application remain unpublished.

    How-to

    There are many different ways to conduct and apply patent analysis, and the entire process typically involves working with a large amount of data. As a result, it is essential that you clearly establish who your target is and what you need to know about them. The following steps highlight some of the key elements of a basic patent analysis.

    1.  Establish a clear target and purpose for your analysis. Like any other analytic method that requires a large amount of data, it is important to know your specific needs before proceeding. Determining these needs could be a product of your firm’s SWOT analysis, benchmarking, or a simple needs assessment. A company with serious interests in its own technological standing within a particular industry should develop a strong understanding of both its own patent portfolio (internal landscape), and those of its adversaries (external landscape). Analysis of patent data can provide management with insight regarding the firm’s potential opportunities, legal infringements, or external threats in the market.

    2.  Choose a data collection plan. Based on your needs from step 1, it is now time to identify appropriate sources for your information. One or all of the following databases may be used to search US patents.   
      1. USPTO - www.uspto.gov    
      2. Google Patents - http://www.google.com/patents?hl=en  
      3. FreePatentsOnline - www.freepatentsonline.com

    Of these three databases, the USPTO site will provide the most comprehensive results. However, if the needs of the firm only call for simple patent research, it may be more beneficial for the analyst to draw from Google Patents or FreePatentsOnline instead. These two third-party options are a little more user-friendly, and they include some nice features like enabling RSS feeds for new patent alerts. Additionally, if there are international implications for your search, you can find European patents at http://www.espacenet.com and patents filed at the World Intellectual Property Organization’s database at http://www.wipo.int.  You can also find additional foreign patent searching websites on the searching patents page.

    3.  Choose the appropriate tool for the job.  As demonstrated in the Personal Application section, an analyst can certainly conduct a patent analysis without the assistance of commercial software. Licenses to these programs can be quite costly, but the software can save the analyst an incredible amount of time collecting and manipulating the data. Some of the top-rated programs are Delphion, Matheo, and Derwent, and i2. Since I chose to do the collection and analysis manually, I cannot endorse any patent software.

    4.  Collect the data.  As with most analytical methods, this is probably the most time-consuming task in the process. One single search is not likely to provide you with everything you need for the analysis. Use the manuals provided by USPTO to optimize the search. If you are compiling a large amount of data, I recommend learning how to do advanced Boolean searches using the operators and truncations specific to the USPTO site.

    5.  Fill the gaps in the data. While the USPTO site contains all patents and filings electronically (full patents are available from 1976 to present; limited information is available for patents from 1790-1975), applications and assignments are not available through the same database. Depending on your needs, it may be necessary to search the patent assignment database (http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-adv.htm) and the patent application databases (http://appft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-adv.html) concurrently. The application database includes applications from 2001 to the present.

    6.  Analyze the data. A patent analysis is not generally a linear process. It is likely that your analysis will require you to go back and collect more data as you encounter gaps. Data can be analyzed and visualized using a simple spreadsheet (I did all of my analysis in MS Excel). Patent analysis software, if you have it, will automate this process. Again, your needs will determine exactly how you analyze and visualize the data for the decision maker.

    It is important to look for trends in technology inside and outside the industry. Be sure not to limit your focus to known competitors; often technology shifts can come from outside the industry. In addition to identifying trends, it is also important to look for opportunities or threats in the internal and external environments. Be aware of all technology classes in which your company holds patents. This will help you identify new entrants into a technology class or industry that your decision maker will want to know about. A citation analysis (analyzing which patents are highly cited by others) will help you to determine a patent’s significance within the technology class. Fleisher and Bensoussan point out that this is efficient "because 70 percent of patents are never cited and of the remaining 30 percent, patents cited six or more times occupy the ninetieth percentile of most highly cited patents.[i]

    7.  Disseminate findings to decision maker.  You are likely to generate a large amount of data in a patent analysis. Because of this, good visualization is critical. Pie charts, bar graphs, distribution matrices, radar graphs, and trend lines are good ways to visualize and convey your findings to the decision maker.

    8.  Customize an in-house database.  A patent analysis provides a snapshot in time.  However, technology is constantly advancing.  Serious managers who request patent analyses are not likely to abandon the project once the initial patent analysis is completed.  Kirsch and Brown recommend building a patent database and modifying it to suit the needs of the firm.  They suggest that “normalizing the patent attributes” will allow for more effective searches and analysis in the future. [ii]

    9.  Keep abreast of emerging services and databases. As intellectual property databases continue to develop, search features and tools are likely to improve.

    [i] Kirsch, Gregory J. and Charley F. Brown. “Using Patents in Competitive Intelligence,” SCIP Competitive Intelligence Magazine 9, no.1 (Jan.-Feb. 2006): 17-21.


    [ii] Fleisher, Craig S. and Babette E. Bensoussan.  Strategic and Competitive Analysis: Methods and Techniques for Analyzing Business Competition, p.347.

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