This holiday week I want to do something a bit more light-hearted than usual in my data blog. I wanted to combine two things I’m familiar with and enjoy ingesting – holiday foods and patent data. But wait a minute – if you know patent law in any detail, you know that recipes can’t be patented. But the chemical composition of the ingredients, the process for making it and the packaging design can be patented.
Currently the authoritative source of searchable and up-to-date U.S. patent data is in the PatFT database provided by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Anyone can perform a basic or advanced search from here for free. This database contains only issued patents, or patents that have been approved by the patent examiner. There is a separate database called AppFT to find published patent applications that have not yet been approved/issued. (There has been an IT effort since 2010 called Patents End-to-End to modernize the entire patent examination process to include an improved search feature that will replace PatFT and AppFT.)
I began searching in PatFT by typing in the term ‘candy and cane’ in the Advanced Search Query box on the left side of the screen shown below. I selected the years “1790 to present (entire database)”. This search query would pick up these two words if they appeared anywhere together in any part of the patent (title, claims, specification, etc.) I noticed that my 637 search results didn’t capture the spirit of the data I wanted since it included patents with titles such as “foldable battery charger” and “cat scratcher.”
Next, I refined my search to include the words candy cane in the title of the patent only by using the search string ‘ttl/candy and cane’ which yielded 33 patents. Another variation of the search was to type in “candy cane” in quotation marks, which yielded 240 patents. The second search has more results than the first search since it yields the words ‘candy cane’ anywhere in the patent rather than just the title. But I thought that since the candy cane has been around since the mid-1800s and I treat data as an informed sceptic, there might be more patents related to the machinery to make them, the packaging and perhaps even their design.
I like most patent searchers turned to Google Patents, which uses US patent data from 1790 to present and foreign patent data from the European Patent Office (EPO) and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) from 1978 to present in their patent search algorithm. When I performed a search for ‘candy cane’ with the ‘US’ Patent Office filter, I got 1,925 results. That’s a big difference in datasets – almost 2,000 results in Google Patents versus about 50 results in PatFT and AppFT combined.
I turned to patent search experts at the USPTO’s Patent and Trademark Resource Centers to try to understand why the big difference in datasets. One of the reasons for the possible discrepancy is that currently PatFT does not contain the full text data of older patents. Patents from 1790 through 1975 are searchable only by Issue Date, Patent Number and Current U.S. Classification. Patent applications only began to become electronic in 2001 and the USPTO has not retrospectively made older OCR data available in PatFT. You can however find that OCR text data in bulk files back to 1790 using the newly released Bulk Data Storage System. Combining the PatFT/AppFT search with the Bulk Data Storage System files would be the most accurate search for members of the public as of the writing of this article. Another option would be to physically come to the Public Search Facility in Alexandria, VA to use the Examiner Automated Search Tool which contains the complete dataset in one system.
I continued my search in Google Patents for other Christmas foods – “gingerbread”, “fruitcake”, “hot chocolate or cocoa” and “cookies.” Since the word “cookies” is now used in the context of computers, these keyword search results will have more results than the food “cookies.” Even though I don’t consider Google Patents the authoritative data source, right now it’s a lot easier to use for historical research and educational purposes. In my infographic above, you will see the higher of the two numbers from searches done in PatFt/AppFT and Google Patents. And that concludes our journey into the world of searching patent data for holiday foods.