A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it can be worth a great deal more when conducting patent research.

Drawings are essential elements of most patent applications, especially those for design patents, which not only require drawings of the claimed design but also rely almost solely upon those drawings. In fact, USPTO guidelines state that for a design patent, the drawing or photograph “constitutes the entire visual disclosure of the claim,” so “it is of utmost importance that the drawing or photograph be clear and complete, and that nothing regarding the design sought to be patented is left to conjecture.”

Most design patent applications, therefore, contain little text. The description section of a patent recently granted to Apple for the design of a lanyard for an iPod Touch, for example, consisted only of eight short sentences to describe what was being shown in each of the application’s eight design drawings, plus two sentences to describe the locations of contrasting colors in the lanyard’s appearance.

Indexing Every Patent Drawing by its Parts

With the importance of visual images and the relatively little text available in design patents, searching the USPTO database for text only has been somewhat limiting in the past. Advancements in patent data searching technology, however, have solved that problem. New patent data analytics programs have developed a sophisticated approach to searching the vital area of patent drawings. This text-to-image search capability makes everything from prior art searches to guidance for patent application drafting faster and easier.

One such program has gone so far as to index every patent drawing in the USPTO database by its individual parts. This offers users the ability to search for keywords, or combinations of keywords, that will yield a collection of image results pulled from granted patents and patent applications on file at the USPTO. A search for “stent” and “valve,” for example, will return images of medical devices or, more crucially, the drawing labeling those particular parts of a medical device that form the basis for the associated patent.

The patents and applications that the search query turned up are then displayed in a search results page format that allows the user to quickly and easily scan the displayed images to identify the patent drawings that are most likely to be relevant to the project at hand.

Particularly in today’s global economy, it is important for patent searchers to have access to similar data, not just from the USPTO, but from other key patent authorities as well. When evaluating patent research tools, look for those that offer text-to-image, part-level search capabilities within authorities such as the European Patent Office (EPO) and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Being able to search within one authority—or within two or all three simultaneously—is an added benefit that will save patent researchers enormous time and effort.