One definition of competitive intelligence (CI) is the early identification of risks and opportunities in the market place before they become obvious. Intellectual property can be used as a CI tool to gain insight into the actions of industry rivals and collaborators alike.

Hidden within databases of intellectual property lies a wealth of free technical and commercial information.  By searching databases of patents, trade marks and designs and published applications of the same, you can easily learn of the latest developments in your area of research, as well as saving yourself the frustration and expense of pursuing an idea that someone else has already had.

Certainly, before launching a new product, name or logo you must search such databases.  Otherwise, without freedom to operate you could see yourself caught up in some very expensive infringement litigation.  However, there is also a great deal more you can ascertain from searching the above referred to databases.

In return for a twenty year monopoly on a technical breakthrough, an applicant for a patent has to make a full and clear disclosure of how their invention works.  Thus, a patent application or patent will tell you exactly what someone is up to and exactly how their new product or process works.  In addition, if you’re looking for a solution to a particular problem or an improvement, why waste time and money on research that someone else has already done for you.

After searching a technology type, you could find a number of patent applications and/or patents highly relevant to your area of research.  This is not necessarily a set back.  It may provide you with a spring board from which to further develop the technology involved.  In particular, the invention covered by the patent or application may be high cost and you might be able to devise a low cost alternative yourself or an improvement.

You should also remember that only a small number of patents are put to commercial use, so you may be able to negotiate a licence.  In addition, it might only be granted and in force outside theUK, in which case you may be free to import.  Also, a particular patent application may never grant or a granted patent may have expired because it is at the end of its life or because fees to keep it in force were never paid.

You could then try “patent mining”, which is a fairly new technique that is gaining interest among venture capitalists and fund managers.  By comparing your patent and application with your competitors’ you identify where any gaps in the technology lie.  You can then direct your research accordingly so to fill in these gaps, producing new inventions along the way.

So, by screening patent data, you can learn a great deal about the future intentions of your competitors, particularly as patent applications are often published while a product is still in development, which means you can get a heads-up on the next line of products that you competitor will be offering.  It also means you can identify important research clusters, technology which is new on the market (many new patent filings in recent years), dying technology (no new patent filings recently), key technologies (most patent filings overall) and potential infringement cases.
Recommended databases to search include:

Espace
Trade Mark Registry
OHIM
Design Registry

Happy searching!