Need a solution for your latest technology project? It might already exist.

Finding solutions to problems

Companies around the world invest huge budgets in R&D to develop solutions to problems, or new products, systems and processes. Sometimes this leads to an advance in technology, in which case the innovator may elect to seek patent1 protection to help provide a return on the investment.

But what if the solution already exists? If the answer to the problem is out there somewhere then the obvious2 question is: why re-invent the wheel? Wouldn't it be quicker, cheaper and easier to leverage the existing solution and get on with business?

Someone out there may have the answer. The tricky bit is finding it.

But where to look? Textbooks, academic research? These resources are usually not sufficiently focused to provide practical, commercial solutions. Many companies rely on institutional knowledge such as the know-how of their employees. But even a highly skilled workforce has gaps in its knowledge.

Sometimes it is assumed that, if the solution has already been developed, someone else would be doing it or it would be already on the market. But that is not always the case – what if whoever else developed it was unsuccessful in commercialising it – for whatever reason – or did not know the potential of what they'd found?

One place to look is: patents.

Patent literature: a vast resource

The global patent literature is a vast library documenting over a century of technological endeavour. Around 82 million patents have been published3 worldwide.

Each individual patent was originally filed with a purpose in mind; usually to secure protection for a unique idea to support the commercialisation4 of that idea ahead of actual or would-be competitors. Most patents that have ever existed are no longer enforceable or put to any use, but what remains is a collection of documents making up a fantastic resource full of clever, remarkable and sometimes bizarre solutions to technological and scientific problems.

A patent is an innovation instruction manual

The basic principle of the patent system is that an inventor5 is given a monopoly6 in the right to use an invention7 for up to 20 years in return for documenting how the invention works so that the invention is available for the benefit of the public once the period of monopoly has ended. That way, inventors are incentivised to publish advances in technology rather than keeping them secret.

A patent is the document the inventor creates to explain what the invention is and how to put it into practice. The explanation is required by law to explain to someone else, of reasonable skill in the same field, how to put the invention into practice. A patent is therefore an instruction manual for a technological innovation.

Another reason companies conduct R&D themselves is because existing solutions might not be suitable or compatible with their particular situation. But patents do not only describe specific implementations of the invention but the fundamental concept itself. This makes it possible for an expert to adapt the solution to any situation.

Patent solution searching could save time and money

Looking for a solution in the patent literature at the start of a new development project could save a lot of time and money. The cost of this kind of information mining will pale in comparison with a research project that could last months or years, and it might deliver the solution within a matter of weeks, saving valuable time getting the solution to market.

James & Wells has a highly skilled team of patent attorneys who have extensive experience in searching8 patent databases for technologies of all kinds and deep-diving into the immense amount of information available in patents all around the world.
Come to us with a technological problem and we may be able to find the answer somewhere in this invaluable resource.

Not only that, what we find might help your R&D move forward faster than intended, or lead it in a completely unexpected direction. In turn, this might open up new markets and opportunities for your business.


1A proprietary right in an invention which provides the owner with an exclusive right for up to 20 years to make, sell, use or import the invention. In exchange for this monopoly the patent is published so that others can see how the invention works and build on that knowledge. The patented invention may also be used by the public once the patent lapses.

2For a New Zealand patent to be valid, it must not be obvious, and must involve an inventive step, over known technologies. See novelty, anticipation and inventive step for further details

3At some point a patent application is published, meaning its contents are available for anyone to read. In New Zealand publication occurs when a patent application is accepted. However, in most countries publication occurs 18 months after the application is filed.

4Refers to the process of introducing a new product or service to the marketplace (whether in New Zealand or overseas). For the purposes of a patent application commercial working can include taking orders for a product or service (even if in confidence). It is important to understand that commercial working of an invention before a patent application is filed may invalidate that patent application (see validity below).

5The developer of an invention. In the field of intellectual property the word "inventor" is a legal term to describe the person (or group of people) who made the inventive step to arrive at the invention. It is important to understand that this will not necessarily be the person who developed the invention to proof of concept or prototype stage. If the concept itself is inventive then the inventor will be the person who conceived the concept. Ascertaining the correct inventor(s) is important as he or she will need to be named in any patent application and there could be adverse consequences for omitting an inventor or adding someone who is not a true inventor.

6A patent grants the patentee a monopoly in the invention that is the subject of the patent. The monopoly extends to the exclusive rights to make, sell, use or import the invention.

7The product of the creative process of inventing. In intellectual property law "invention" is a legal term usually describing patentable subject matter. Under current New Zealand legislation that subject matter includes any manner of manufacture which is new and involves an inventive step. However, certain types of invention are excluded from patentability. They include inventions which are contrary to morality (for example weapons of mass destruction) and methods of medical treatment (on public policy grounds that such methods should be available for health practitioners to use to the benefit of all society).

8A review of patent databases to look for relevant published patent specifications. Typically the search will be performed with respect to particular jurisdictions. Patent searching can be carried out for a number of reasons. The most common reason is to determine whether a party has freedom to operate in particular countries, in which case the search will only be concerned with patent applications and granted patents which remain in force in those countries. Patent searching may also be conducted to identify relevant prior art which can be used to support a patent opposition/revocation, or by an examiner during examination of a patent application.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

James & Wells Intellectual Property, three time winner of the New Zealand Intellectual Property Laws Award and first IP firm in the world to achieve CEMARS® certification.