Patent information is a growth industry these days, and customers are demanding inexpensive access to international as well as U.S. patent documents. A number of resources have arisen in recent years that provide patent copies over a wide time range from the U.S., major European countries, the PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty or "World" patents), and Japan. Most of them are relatively inexpensive and several, including the Web sites of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the European Patent Office, are free.
But what if you need something that's more difficult to find—a patent from Lithuania, Egypt, Mexico, India, or South Korea, for instance? Typically you would have sent your request to The British Library (http://www.bl.uk). It maintains probably the world's largest collection of international patents, patent file histories, and intellectual property journals. Its collection, comparable to the European Patent Office's main collection at The Hague, Netherlands, numbers about 42 million documents. For years, The British Library has provided copies from this collection via its Patent Express service. A 28-page booklet lists its collection of patent specifications, published applications, journals (patent, trademark, and design), abstract bulletins, and related documents and publications from no fewer than 120 patenting authorities, Algeria through Zimbabwe.
But the Patent Express copy service was discontinued June 5. Nigel Spencer, London copy services manager for The British Library, sent a letter recently to Patent Express customers in which he said: "…developments in patent information mean that the majority of patent documents can now be obtained from sources outside The British Library. For this reason we are withdrawing the following services: the patent document supply service, the file history and patent acquisition service, the Patent Express Lexicon service…. The British Library will continue to provide access to the comprehensive patent collections in reading rooms at the St. Pancras building and will also provide … on-site copying."
In an interview, Spencer admitted that The British Library has closed the Patent Express service for economic reasons. The library must recover its costs, and it can no longer make money from Patent Express because customers use it only for the difficult-to-obtain patents, while going to inexpensive or free sources for the easy ones.
The end of the Patent Express service was not a complete surprise in knowledgeable quarters. Ann Chapman, director of Minesoft, a London-based patent copy service, said: "The future of British Library Services had been under review for some considerable time, and it was generally known in the U.K. that there was a question mark over whether or how they would be continued. The numbers of documents supplied had been falling sharply over the past few years…. Obviously the lack of demand for heavily requested countries [U.S., EP, and PCT] has led to a fall in funds generated for document supply, no doubt a factor here."
Spencer confirmed that The British Library will continue to maintain and increase its international patent collection. So from now on you can go to its St. Pancras office and copy the patents yourself, but you can no longer ask The British Library to send you copies. And if you live and work anywhere in the world but London, this can present a problem.
The solution to the problem will most likely come from patent copy services with offices in London. Spencer said that intermediaries—patent supply organizations, patent agents, and others who make copies for clients rather than themselves—are using the collection extensively.
What other patent copy services are available? And will they make use of The British Library collection? I talked with or e-mailed people at three major providers of patent copies: Minesoft, MicroPatent, and Derwent.
Minesoft, the company that Questel•Orbit uses for its PatentOrder copy service (http://www.patentorder.com), has the advantage of being based in London and of having worked with The British Library for some time. Ann Chapman sent me a list of 32 countries from which the company provides patent copies, either full or partial coverage. David Dickens, director of Questel•Orbit's Patent Business Unit, said that Minesoft uses Espacenet, the European Patent Office service, as well as the U.S., Canadian, German, and Australian patent offices for electronic patent copies.
The German Patent Office site, Depatis (http://www.depatisnet.com), itself has an extensive list of countries from which it claims to provide patent copies. However, the less-common countries' collections are sparsely populated (e.g., 24 Indian patents total, three Argentinian patents), and many of them are just abstracts, not images of full patents. Espacenet (http://www.european-patent-office.org/espacenet/info/index.htm) is a growing source of international patents. For instance, it has recently added some Eastern European countries, the latest of which are the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Estonia. But again, while Espacenet lists patents from a multitude of countries, it does not include actual patent images for many of the more obscure ones. Chapman confirmed that The British Library will remain a useful source for older patents and patents that are unavailable elsewhere.
MicroPatent (http://www.micropat.com) offers relatively inexpensive copies from its standard collection of U.S. patents and all EP and WO patents and published applications. Its special collections (more expensive copies) are fairly extensive, including the U.S. dating to 1790, most major European countries to 1920, Japanese since 1985 (1987 for B-documents), very recent Canadian, and a smattering of Australian and additional European countries. Judy Hickey, director of patent product development at MicroPatent, confirmed in a phone interview that the U.S.-based company did use the Patent Express copy service for more obscure patents. It now calls on a variety of sources worldwide—some of them publicly accessible (like Espacenet) and some not—for copies of patents that are not in their collections. She said that her company has not yet decided whether it will station employees in London to go to The British Library and make copies. It will have to wait to see what documents it can't find elsewhere.
Derwent Information, Ltd., producer of the Derwent World Patents Index, used the demise of Patent Express to promote its own London-based patent copy service. In fact, many of us first learned about the fate of Patent Express in a letter that Derwent sent to its customers saying, "You may know that The British Library is withdrawing their services for patent document delivery…. Derwent offers a range of services to meet these needs…." The letter then referred readers to the Derwent Web site at http://www.derwent.com/patentcopy/about_pcs.html. Jeremy Rosie, product manager in Derwent's Intellectual Property Services group, told me that its Alexandria, Virginia-based patent copy service no longer exists. Derwent has moved the function to its London office. This is the logical place for it, since this is where Derwent regularly receives patents from over 30 countries to be indexed and abstracted for input to the World Patents Index. Rosie said: "Occasionally we will make use of a third-party source. The British Library collection is particularly comprehensive, and we do make use of their collection where our source material is deficient. We will continue to use the BL collection … by sending someone ‘down the road' to collect copies. It is most convenient to have them on our doorstep."
An era has ended in the sense that the Patent Express copy service has been discontinued. But The British Library "is still committed to developing patent collections," says Spencer. I hope that its collection will remain a valuable and growing resource, accessible both to individuals and to patent copy services with representatives in London.