Why, you might ask, is the subject of Free or Fee still being discussed almost 20 years after the world’s first “free” patent databases were launched in the 1990s?  One of them, IBM’s Patent Server as it was originally called, helped to revolutionize the world of patent information.  Up until then patent databases had largely been the reserve of the traditional online hosts and, with rare exceptions, were confined to abstracting and indexing databases only.  IBM’s service, which was later to become the commercial service Delphion, was the first to go beyond bibliographic data and abstracts by offering searchable claims and scanned images of the full text; albeit of US patents only.  Many people have argued that this move by IBM prompted several of the larger patent offices into accelerating plans to host their own databases on the web and, indeed, in 1998 the USPTO launched their own freely searchable database of front page information and the European Patent Office unveiled Espacenet.

Today we take so-called free patent databases for granted.  And why not?  Almost every national as well as multinational patent office now offers free access to their publications.  Some, like Espacenet and WIPO’s PatentScope, also offer access to the publications of other patent authorities.  And the market is not confined to the intellectual property offices either.  Several commercial organizations, most famously Google, offer users the ability to search tens of millions of patent documents online for free, even providing “Advanced” search functionality for the more expert user.

At the time, some commentators suggested that this explosion in free patent information would come at the expense of the commercial vendors and looked forward to a “new democracy” in patent searching.  Others feared that the rise of the free services would lead to a reduction in quality or among choice of vendors.  Neither prediction has come true.  If anything, there appear to me more “for profit” patent databases available now than ever before giving users considerable choice of data coverage, search functionality, user interfaces and data export options etc.  So why and how are commercial databases continuing to thrive given the ubiquity of free patent information and can the two models co-exist?

Much has been written about the differences between Free and Fee patent databases including added value elements like standardization and normalization, as well as intangible benefits like training and support.  Despite these advantages, free patent research tools are not only here to stay but, I would argue, meet a need beyond simply budget.  Free tools encourage the commercial sector to “up their game.”  As more content and functionality becomes commoditized by the free services, so the private sector must seek better ways to justify their subscription fees and, of course, to differentiate themselves from their commercial as well as free competitors.

But does it have to be a case of either or?  Many organizations that I have worked with (in a career that spanned more than 30 years; equally divided between the public and private sectors) subscribe to one or more commercial patent research tool.  But few organizations can afford or want all of their employees to have access to tools designed primarily for professionals.  While some vendors have adapted their tools to provide end user interfaces so that non-expert searchers can benefit from the advantages of a commercial tool, many choose to provide access to the free tools.  But which free tools?

As someone once said, not all patent databases are created equal.  In the Elsevier journal, World Patent Information 42 (2015) a comparison of three of the main multinational patent databases available to the public free of charge, Espacenet, Patentscope and Depatisnet, concluded  that… while Espacenet had the best features for searching, Patentscope was best for analysis and Depatisnet best for complex search tasks.  This suggests that in the patent information world the concept of “One Size Fits All” does not work and just as searchers will use a variety of free tools, so will they mix and match with the commercial tools.  Indeed, the EPO itself encourages practitioners to, “Use the right tools.”  Adding that, “… free patent search tools are not necessarily more cost-effective than fee-based databases, once you factor in your manpower costs”.  And warns of “…. the limitations of free products.”

Clearly, there is room for both commercial and free tools to exist and while the private sector is dependent upon the public sector for the majority of the raw content, the relationship is healthily symbiotic.