Letter to the Editor: Many PTDL Librarians Support Fully Indexed Access to all US Patents

Patent and Trademark Depository Librarians read your October 25, 2009 blog entry, USPTO Designates New PTDL, But What About Online, which makes a strong and most welcome call for fully indexed access to all US Patents back to 1790. Many PTDL librarians have called for such access for the past decade. State of the art OCR of USPTO’s image files could greatly enhance field indexing, especially if it offered better search options than Google Patents, such as full Boolean and proximity search.

You correctly note that field searching and currency is limited in Google Patents, especially compared to the USPTO database, but the problems only begin there. Google patents does not update the classifications assigned to patents and it does not warn the searcher to go to patft.uspto.gov for an accurate classification search.

USPTO also offers Public PAIR access to image file wrappers since June 2004, USPC indexes and manuals, patent/trademark laws and procedures, and the electronic filing system, none of which are available on Google patents. Google is a business with ample cash reserves; the USPTO is a government agency with a shrinking budget this year. USPTO’s budget drives plans and development and if the money is not there, new projects like database improvements do not get done. Google is notorious for not announcing products ahead of time, while the USPTO must publish its plans well ahead of time. Most significantly, using Google is a take-it-or leave it proposition with no possibility for one-on-one training.

The USPTO has made a commitment to train PTDL staff so that they can train the inventors and researchers who come into their libraries. Without this training at PTDLs distributed across the US, inventors’ alternatives for prior art or history searches would range from nothing, to bad keyword searches, to showing up at the doors of patent attorneys with nothing but a hunch that they have a new idea. The PTDLs train inventors in patent searching to help them make their own, and far more informed decisions to pursue a patent or not. PTDL staff have devoted years to mastering both patent searching and informing the public about it. We work with the public daily and see how the legal issues involved with patents, combined with the jargon makes for a steep learning curve for independent inventors and other patent searchers. To take just one small example, when was the last time you used “plurality” in a sentence outside of patent law?

In summary, we wish to add several important points to your blog post:

1. We need to educate each other and the public about what already IS free online, and work to make it more organized and understandable.

2. No database, no matter how sophisticated it is, can make so complex a subject as patents into a “self-service” process needing minimal training. Many brilliant inventors will never have the language, search logic, subject, or cited reference searching skills to do these increasingly difficult searches.

3. Even if a state of the art database gets onto the web, with enough capacity to handle a breathtaking volume of users, every library will most emphatically NOT be a PTDL. The database knowledge, searching skills, and above all – the people skills to help motivate baffled beginning searchers to persevere, take years to learn.

4. Most libraries face drastic cuts for at least the next few years. There is no reason to believe they will take on the significant training that USPTO offers PTDL staff.

About the Authors

Jim Miller is a Patent & Trademark Depository Librarian and has been a librarian at the University of Maryland for 37 years, serving since 1980 in the Engineering & Physical Sciences Library.  Miller has been the College Park PTDL Representative since 1998, and was the 18th PTDL Fellowship Librarian at USPTO from June 2001 through June 2002.  As Senior Reference Librarian, he is the specialist for patents and trademarks, technical reports, and any other “tough questions”.  He has an MLS from the University of Maryland and a BA in English from Randolph-Macon College.

Andrew Wohrley is President of the Patent & Trademark Depository Library Association, an organization of librarians and other staff from the 82 PTDLs nationwide. He is the Engineering Librarian at the Ralph Brown Draughon Library at Auburn University, and has been the Auburn PTDL Representative since 1999.


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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Jim MIller]
    Jim MIller
    December 10, 2009 07:25 pm

    I need to give credit to Andrew Wohrley, Auburn PTDL Representative and Engineering Librarian at
    Auburn University Libraries, for writing the first draft of this, and bringing to our attention Gene’s October 25 post. He is definitely a co-author of our response.

    Many thanks,


  • [Avatar for KristinFromIntellogist]
    December 10, 2009 10:57 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Jim, and I’m grateful to Gene also for publishing it on IPWatchdog. I couldn’t agree more with the points in this blog – patent searching is difficult, and it requires a special skill set that can take months to fully grasp (and years to excel at).

    One of the things that concerns me is that, even though it’s best to learn patent searching from an expert through hands-on training, many people just don’t have the time or the resources available to do this. What my company has tried to do through our website, Intellogist (http://www.intellogist.com/), is to create an in-depth resource that attempts to address these challenges and make them clearer to laypeople. For example, we offer a wiki article for Best Practices on patent searching which explains basic concepts such as classification searching (http://www.intellogist.com/wiki/General_Searching_Best_Practices), as well as a wiki Glossary section for definitions of patent information terms (for example, the concept of patent families). To help would-be patent searchers make informed choices about systems, we offer in-depth reports on free and commercial patent search tools, and a comparison table to see their features at a glance (http://www.intellogist.com/wiki/Compare:Patent_Search_System). There are a host of other resources on Intellogist as well – we offer resources that can help searchers find coverage information by country, and a resource finder tool to help them discover sources of non-patent prior art in their technical area.

    Although no web resource could ever equal the full attention and help of a PDTL librarian, I think resources like Intellogist are necessary to educate people about the difficulty inherent in performing a good prior art search. As the prior art searching community looks at the challenges to our profession brought on by increasing numbers of free search resources on the web, one of our biggest responsibilities is to pass on this message.