Free Patent Information ... Sustainable Sources for Information Professionals?

Published Jan 28, 2010 by Thomas E Wolff

The allure of copyright-free patent data has resulted in development of countless free patent databases on the world wide web. What are the business models for the commercial patent information providers?
The allure of copyright-free patent data has resulted in development of countless free patent databases on the world wide web. Every major patent authority has its patent collection online, and the rest of the world’s authorities intend to digitize and make available their collections free as well. The largest patent collection provided by a patent authority is Esp@cenet, operated by the European Patent Office (EPO). It contains bibliographic data on more than 60 million patents from national and regional patent offices and WIPO and full text, pdf documents, and INPADOC legal status information on most of the collection. Esp@cenet is also one of the leading providers of free patent data to other patent information aggregators.

So with all this data freely available, why do information professionals need more sources?
The answer lies in the quality of the data and user interfacesb and the patent information policies of the patent authorities. In particular, the EPO and United Stated Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provide only basic search and access to patent information from their own web sites to public users in order to avoid competing with commercial patent database providers. These patent offices give commercial providers barrier-free access to patent information and documents at marginal (EPO) or competitive (USPTO) cost. Most of these other providers then offer value-added interfaces and services that well exceed the basic offerings of the free public sites.

What are the business models for the commercial patent information providers?
At one end of the spectrum are sites that provide completely free but limited value-added access and customer service. Examples of these are listed in the IRF Resource Collection under Patent Search. Some of the bigger totally-free systems are Google patents (beta) and Both of these use advertising to maintain financial viability. At the other end are more traditional information providers doing business via subscription or pay-as-you go options. These are listed in Commercial Solutions for Patent Data, Search, Analysis, and Management and include LexisNexis, Minesoft, Questel, Thomson Reuters, and STN International.

Other organizations attempt to use free access to basic information to develop paying customers for more value-added services, although examples where this has actually worked are hard to find. The founders developed a second service, SumoBrain, with the expressed intention to make it an advanced search and analysis service available by subscription. However, those plans did not pan out and SumoBrain was released as and remains a free-access only system that is not much different than FreePatentsOnline.

Boliven developed a very large network of users and extensive, free patent database but was unsuccessful in building a supportable business model. Boliven was founded in 2008 and provided “a robust set of free search, analytics, and exporting tools” accessing “one of the world’s largest free patent search engines, with over 60 million records from around the world” and a unique Innovation Network™, a set of relationships among affiliated inventors, attorneys, and other professionals powered by a database of 100+ million public records. Boliven explained on their web site that free basic membership would be supported by paid services including advanced data services to power clients’ internal analytic needs or their own websites and various listings services related to job and licensing opportunities. All this came to an end as announce by email to Boliven network members on January 15, 2010:

After approximately a year of beta product releases and extensive user feedback, the Board of the company has determined that it no longer makes good business sense to continue to operate the Boliven website and associated services. We were happy that over 100,000 unique monthly visitors and over 6,000 registered members found utility from Boliven, but as of the end of last year we had fallen short of some of our other operational and financial goals. We have decided to make our website and its services available until next Friday, January 22.

While the public will probably never know what happened at Boliven, it seems evident that they did not develop enough actual or potential paid-for offerings despite the large number of network members and the quality or breadth of their free data. In a world of free data and established commercial providers, Boliven needed to develop clearly distinctive, value-added offerings, something that may have been impeded by the self-described “small staff” for development and testing.

Are free patent information sources sustainable?
Yes but… There seem to be enough reasons to offer free patent database services to keep many available for the general public to answer the “easy” questions. However, information professionals will mostly watch from the sidelines and continue to use for-pay, value-added resources necessary to answer their customers effectively and efficiently. The competition for those paying customers will be fierce and will hinge on technical developments to bring more information from more sources in more languages with better search and analysis functionality to the patent community.