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What is a patent, and why is it important in the world of technology

The world of modern technologies, including energy, accumulates a huge amount of technical knowledge collected by mankind and implemented in unique machines, materials or production methods. An important role here is played by inventions presented in the form of patents, stimulating engineers to create a string of new options for technical solutions, each time providing new advantages to rightholders in real production practice.

Inventions for which a patent has been obtained acquire legal protection, which prevents its free use without the permission of the owners for a certain period, in most countries of the world for 20 years. Inventions that are not protected by a patent may be in the possession of their owners under the trade secret regime, or they may be used anywhere as public domain. All three options are widespread and have their own advantages and disadvantages. The free transfer of an invention into the public domain is the most humane form of activity; however, it deprives the creators of the opportunity not only to profit from their work, but also to be compensated for the effort expended. However, this option is also often used for practical reasons if it is more feasible than expensive patenting. Maintaining a trade secret regime is not always possible in practice and requires considerable organizational efforts and financial costs. Since a patent involves the public disclosure of an invention with the simultaneous preservation of intellectual property rights of its owners, then in this case the most adequate form of legislative stimulation of the creative activity of inventors is implemented, on the one hand, and the presentation of original technical solutions for public viewing, on the other.

Any invention must meet several established criteria. First, it must be original or have signs of novelty not known in existing technology; secondly, the essence of the invention should not follow from obvious considerations available to a modern educated person; thirdly, the invention cannot be just abstract, it must be applicable in real practice.

To obtain a patent, the author of an invention must apply to the patent office of the country or region where he wishes to obtain legal protection and file an application for an invention in the prescribed form. Unfortunately, there are no worldwide patents, they are always geo-referenced. However, it is possible to file a patent application at a global level through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In this case, copyright priority for such a patent document will remain among all WIPO participants until the end of a certain period of time from the date of its publication, during which the application must be converted into a patent in the national patent offices. Such organizations exist in one form or another in almost every country. For example, WIPO unites 193 member countries. Of course, this is important, especially if you want to patent an invention in a specific country, but it should be borne in mind that today approximately 95% of patents are granted in the five leading patent offices - in the US (USPTO), Chinese (CNIPA), Japanese (JPO), European (EPO) and South Korean (KIPO). In the energy sector, in addition to these offices, the Canadian, Australian, Russian, Brazilian, Mexican, Norwegian, German, Taiwanese, Swiss, South African, Indian, Israeli, Arab (the Gulf countries) offices are also very popular. To prepare a patent application it is possible and even advisable to use the services of a specialist - patent attorneys or patent agents. In some countries, the presence of a local patent attorney is mandatory when a non-resident applies for an invention. The Advanced Energy Technologies website has a list of leading patent offices as well as patent attorneys for virtually every region of the world under Patent information. More information on patents can be found on the WIPO website -

Search and analysis of patent documents

In addition to the legal aspects, patents and patent applications are heralds of current technical innovations, without which effective commercial activity in an extremely competitive modern world is impossible. Therefore, many consumer groups are interested in obtaining patent information. Inventors need to find suitable analogues for their own technical solution, a patent attorney needs to provide patent search services for his clients, exporters will always be interested in whether their products comply with the patent purity in the country of the consumer of their products, designers need to submit a patent study to customers and investors demonstrating what degree, the project meets the requirements of the state of the art, industrial companies always need new modern solutions to existing technological problems and analysis of the intellectual property market and the place of competitors in it, lawyers need access to patent databases with detailed patent history to protect clients' interests in patent disputes. However, many may face serious disappointment here, since it is not easy to find a suitable analogue, and even more so to make a serious patent review.

According to statistics from the World Intellectual Property Organization, in 2018 alone more than 3.3 million patent applications and more than 1.4 million patents were issued worldwide. Approximately about 6-10% of these may be related to energy technologies. Thus, just to take into account valid patents, it is necessary to process huge amounts of data for at least 20 recent years. If it is necessary to find suitable analogues to the newly created invention, then not only patents will have to be considered, but also patent applications and other publications, often for a longer period of time. However, the problems don't end there. Official patent information is published in the language of the respective country, which is already inconvenient. Although modern databases contain a large number of high-quality English translations or services for machine translation of patent information into other languages, for example, WIPO Translate or Google Translate, one should not delude ourselves, since not everything is professionally translated, and machine translations are still far from perfect. In addition, it should be borne in mind that the structure of patent texts and the order of their presentation depend largely not only on linguistic characteristics, but also on the technical vocabulary characteristic of a particular industry sector, national patent traditions, and the variety of phraseological and semantic variations of the same concept.

Existing patent search engines and specialized services for searching and processing patent information are trying to overcome these difficulties with obvious progress. Today, not only paid private patent search engines have excellent conditions for finding the necessary patent documents and their primary analytical processing, but also public ones, combining patent documents from various national offices, for example, Espacenet, Lens, Patentscope, Google patent, and others. In addition to numerous document archives, often full-texts, these systems offer many additional services, such as detailed bibliographic data, extensive citation lists, composition of patent families, a list of similar patent solutions, analytical statistics, machine translation of patents, and much more. A giant step towards achieving harmony between suppliers and consumers of patent information was the creation of a unique Global Dossier, which combined patent information from the five leading world patent offices - the US, Japanese, Chinese, European and Korean. A detailed analysis of the operating environment and capabilities of the aforementioned public patent systems is provided in this paper:

Patent Searching Using FreeSearchTools/ Ellen Krabbe, Steve Sampson, Ian Wetherbee/ Intellectual Property Owners Association/ 2017/

Lists of the leading patent search engines and their brief description can also be seen on this site, in the Patent information / patent search engines section.

In almost any search engine it is possible to find the desired document using keywords, patent classification indexes, the names of applicants and inventors. One of the most important methods used is searching by keywords and their combinations. As a rule, this method is used to search for documents in which the necessary keywords are present in the title, abstract, claims, description. The scope of this method mainly depends on the functionality of the search engine of a particular patent office. For example, the WIPO search engine allows you to create complex search queries to search across all text fields in a document using an extensive list of logical operators and search syntax elements. Such queries allow you to search for documents with different keywords and their combinations in different fields, set the necessary conditions for their mutual placement in the text, and use wildcards. For example, the following search term:

EN_TI:(photovoltaic*) AND EN_ALLTXT:("solar tracker"~5)

will search for documents whose title contains the word “photovoltaic” with any ending, and the full description text contains the words “solar” and “tracker” at a distance of 5 words from each other. The European Patent Office (EPO) also allows multiple Boolean operators and searches in different fields of a document, but there is already a limit of 10 search words per field with a total limit of 20 search criteria in all fields. The main feature of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) search is that there are two different search engines for patents and applications. Also, the keyword search capabilities here do not include such a function as determining the criteria for the relative placement of keywords relative to each other. The above example without this function and adapted for the USPTO is:

TTL/photovoltaic$ AND (SPEC/"solar tracker" OR ACLM/"solar tracker")

As a rule, there are general restrictions in the search for documents by keywords; for example, a ban on the use of the most frequently used linguistic units, such as articles, conjunctions, prepositions, etc. In some cases, this can be inconvenient, for example, when searching for documents on the topic "Gas to liquid", where the specified phrase is a well-established term and could be used to search for relevant documents; however, in the search engines of many offices, the preposition "to" cannot be used as a search criterion. In such and similar complex cases, alternative keywords or other methods of searching for documents and their combinations are used. The main limitations of searching for documents by keywords are in the linguistic nature of this method. Typically, fully-fledged keyword searches in national patent offices are performed in the language of the respective country, which makes the search process very difficult. In addition, errors are often encountered in the titles and abstracts of documents, which in some cases should be taken into account when compiling a search query. The main problem in the keyword-based search is related to the diversity of semantic meanings of the word combinations involved. For instance, when a search query includes the term "Gas to Liquid", which denotes the technology of synthetic fuel production from natural gas, the search results also include documents with text fields containing such concepts as "gas to liquid ratio"; "addition of gas to liquid"; or any other occurrence involving this word combination in any context.

Another important method of searching for patent documents is searching by indexes of the International Patent Classifier (IPC) or its analogues, for example, Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC). The IPC is a hierarchical system for the classification of inventions that is independent of linguistics. Thus, an IPC index search renders language barriers when searching for documents in national and regional patent offices. If the required technology has its own index in the classifier, a search is performed by the corresponding class. In addition, a search is carried out using indices close to the technology, with additional clarification by keywords or other search criteria. This method is also applied in cases where the corresponding index does not exist. For example, when searching for documents on the production of methane from coal seams, the IPC E21B43/00 class is used (methods or apparatus for obtaining oil, gas, water, soluble or meltable materials or a slurry of minerals from wells) and the corresponding keywords (for example, "coal bed", "coal seam", etc.). The difference between this method and a simple keyword search is that one can use broader keywords. When using this method, possible updates to the classifier should be taken into consideration. Some of the classes change structure or can be renamed. Thus, the classifier group related to solar collectors (F24J2/00 and its subgroups) was divided into several other groups of the classifier in 2018, the result of which meant that it became necessary to use different encodings of the IPC classifier when searching for documents for different years.

Unfortunately, for a large number of real technological processes, the IPC indices are too generalized or even absent. Also, the assignment of certain IPC indices is largely subjective in nature, which can be traced in some patent documents of the same simple patent families in which different IPC subgroup numbers are recorded. But the most important problem is that IPC indices are more focused on common features of technological operations, devices or compositions used in various sectors of the industry, which makes it difficult to select patent documents for a specific industry sector.

Searching patent documents by the names of applicants and inventors in combination with IPC indexes or keywords is quite convenient if their exact names are known. Problems can arise in the fact that the spelling of names is often distorted, which leads to both "clogging" of patent lists and its restriction. In addition, some applicants, such as General Electric, Siemens and others, work in several industries and have a huge number of patents in each of them, which makes it difficult to find their documents in a particular industry.

It is very useful to search for patent documents from lists of patent families, especially in the case of simple families where it is sufficient to check one document in a user-friendly language to trace all the documents in it. Some search engines offer additional services, for example, a list of cited documents, a list of similar documents, special abstracts in English, etc. All this creates a certain comfort in the preliminary search for patent documents, i.e. drawing up initial lists for later analysis. However, no matter how good the system for selecting patent documents is, it cannot unambiguously respond to the user requests. The main obstacle is that in patent descriptions there is ambiguity of terms used to express the same technical element or problems, semantic ambiguity of the phraseology used, the use of keywords that do not correspond to the topic, which greatly complicates and even distorts the search for inventions and further interpretation of technical solutions proposed.

In this regard, for an adequate interpretation of patented technical solutions, it is necessary to have access to full descriptions of patent documents, and not only to their brief abstracts and bibliographic data. In addition, in some cases, the preparation of a responsible patent opinion may require analysis of non-patent literature, such as scientific publications or research reports. Ignoring some of the necessary steps of patent analysis can lead to serious consequences, for example, to a significant loss of time during the preparation and filing of an application with the patent office, which has been insufficiently checked for the presence of similar inventions that rob the proposed technical solutions of the principle of novelty. Production companies can face even more serious problems when they release products using patented elements of production, but without obtaining a permitting license. Research and evaluation of patent texts is a completely different level of analysis of patent data, when many existing search patent services are ineffective in providing such a service. The solution to this problem can be specialized companies offering modern software for the analysis of patent documents, a list of these can also be found on our website in the section Patent information / patent search engines. It should be noted that some of them are trying to find general solutions for all patent documents regardless of technological affiliation, which in principle is very difficult, since, as noted above, there are significant differences in the technical vocabulary characteristic of a particular sector of the industry, the prevailing national patent traditions, as well as in connection with the variety of phraseological and semantic variations of the same concept. On the other hand, the concentration of analysis on certain relatively narrow sectors of the industry limits the scope of such research, but allows for more reliable results. In general, as usually happens in life, you need a reasonable compromise between these approaches.

Patent methodology of Advanced Energy Technologies

The creative research association Advanced Energy Technologies under the management of EnerTechUp GmbH has developed its own methodology for patent analysis in the energy industry and includes several fundamental distinctive points aimed at improving the quality of research. The methodology is focused primarily on the engineering community and includes a compilation of lists of patent documents that best reflect the variety of claimed technical solutions in the energy industry. In this regard, the methodology did not focus on the legal aspects of patents (court claims, priority disputes, patents that have lost their legal protection status, etc.). A full description of the methodology can be found on our website page in the Research & analysis / Methodology section.

In brief, the essence of the methodology is as follows:

- compilation of preliminary lists of patent documents for individual sectors of the energy industry using common search methods;
- the final selection of patent documents based on the preferential analysis of text descriptions of patent documents;
- defining additional universal indicators (technology categories and technology elements, problems, and technical solution types) for each invention and performing respective marking for each document; provided that all of the indicators are developed with a particular degree of abstraction, which makes it possible to correlate them with patent information of any complexity, regardless of the diversity of semantic meanings in any language, and to reduce the enormous total number of phraseological combinations of interpretation of all technological terms to a finite value
- identification of groups with identical universal and bibliographic indicators in the array of patent documents;
- assignment of a statistical rating to each patent document, taking into account twenty different indicators, including separate indicators related directly to a patent document and indicators of the activities of applicants and inventors of a specific document;
- analysis of patent solutions in groups of patent documents with identical indicators, including using rating indicators;
- identification of statistical and technological characteristics of patent documents in each group, formation of updated lists of documents, determination of trends in patent activity.

Based on this methodology, patent research was carried out in the main energy sectors, including wind energy (horizontal axis wind turbine), bioenergy (algae, biogas, cellulosic ethanol, thermochemical treatment, landfill gas etc.), concentrated solar energy, unconventional oil extraction (oil shale , oil sands and extra heavy oil), hydrocarbons production from low permeability reservoirs (exploration, hydraulic fracturing, directional drilling, fracturing materials, ecological safety etc.), methane production from coal beds (coal bed methane, coal to electricity, etc.), utilization of associated petroleum gas (production, gas injection, gas to power etc.), exploration and production of methane hydrates (exploration, drilling and / or capture, activation etc.),  synthetic fuel production (coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids, methanol & products, Fischer-Tropsch etc.). Various patent research options can be seen on this website under Research & analysis / Publications and News & Events / Energy Landscape / Research and Innovations.

In addition, according to a simplified version of this methodology, a large array of scientific publications was processed, which greatly facilitates their search. These publications can be useful for analyzing existing technical solutions. A collection of such scientific publications can be found on this website in the Library / Research papers section.