How to Source and Recruit Candidates Using the U.S. Patent and Trademark Database

Editor’s note: This post is part of our Source the Web series here on SourceCon. It features articles on how to mine particular online data resources from experts like TalentBin’s Peter Kazanjy.

What is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Database?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Database is a bibliographic, full-text database of all the patents and trademarks that have been submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for review and consideration. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offers the general public web access to the database so engineers and designers have the ability to search through products and make sure they are not duplicating a patent request that already exists. The U.S. Patent and Trademark website provides free electronic copies of issued patents and patent applications as multiple-page graphic documents. The site also provides Boolean search and analysis tools.

What exactly is a patent, anyway?

A patent is an intellectual property right granted by the Government of the United States of America to an inventor “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted.

There are three types of patents. Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

Why source on the U.S. Patent Database?

Some 5 million patent grants and applications have been filed on the U.S. Patent Database since 2005. Those patents represent more than 100,000 companies and over 1 million individual credited inventors. A whopping 33 million patent applications have been filed worldwide since 1985.

When you think about it, that’s a sizeable number of engineers, scientists and designers amassed in one space. And, better yet, these are precisely the genre of people who tend to have frustratingly sparse LinkedIn profiles—software engineers, electrical engineers, biotech engineers, etc. Luckily for you, these are also the people who have to be listed and included on any patent application they are a part of.

Scores of statistics related to approved patents and patents under review can be found on the U.S. Patent and Trademark website.

For example, last year, a total of 576,763 patent applications were submitted in the U.S. alone:

The Patent Database also features handy visual dashboards such as the one below, that provide current statistics on patents under review, as well as statistics related to the ongoing patent process:

Patent applications and grants offer a wealth of insight into a breadth of innovators across the technical spectrum. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) notes that the 1.9 million patents filed in 2009 included applications in electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, semiconductors, and much more.

Additionally, the talent represented by patent filings is remarkably international in nature, with more than half of the 490,000 patents filed in 2010 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Organization coming from non-residents, located in international locations which online resume databases and professional social networks have yet to access.

The USPTO website also has statistics for the number of patents submitted by specific corporations:

And you don’t have to go in blind—you can kick off your hunt by doing an initial search via Google’s patent search function:

The U.S. Patent Database is rich in professional activity because it is the place where skilled engineers, scientists, chemists and designers go to submit their latest and greatest ideas. You will find engineers of every variety—software, electrical, aerospace, pharmaceutical, biotech, financial / quantitative, and everything beyond. You will also find the companies that employ these people, because the vast majority of patents are submitted by professionals at the behest of their companies.

How is it professionally relevant?

As we just noted, the USPTO Database is brimming over with professional engineers and scientists who have all submitted original project designs for patent approval. This means that, if you happen to be on the hunt for a talented, top-tier computer engineer who has developed Java-based software, you can look up patents that involve Java-based software and immediately see the names of all the credited inventors associated with those types of patents. Best of all, you can be certain that these inventors are skilled in Java because companies are far more likely to task their most competent and experienced programmers with the creation of brand-new, proprietary technology.

And your search needn’t be limited to computer programmers. The wonderful thing about the USPTO Database is that it includes every patent application ever submitted. So, if you’re searching for a mechanical engineer who specializes in artificial limb replacements, you can search for all patents related to artificial limb replacements and find the name of every mechanical engineer who contributed to such a project. If you’re looking for chemists working on certain types of pharmaceuticals, the same is true. In other words, think of any skill set having to do with innovation and technology and you can tap into it on the USPTO Database.

What is the core activity that goes on there?

There is really just one key activity that happens on the U.S. patent database: people and companies submit patent applications, and those electronic applications are kept online while the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reviews them. If the patent is approved and granted, the inventor or company will then pay a fee to have it officially published. All activity on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Database centers around the status of submitted patent applications.

How is the core activity structured?

The setup of the U.S. Patent Database is simple and straightforward. First, and most importantly, there are the people, a.k.a. the “inventors” who have submitted patent applications for products they have conceived and created. But don’t let the name “inventor” fool you, this isn’t a mad scientist in a lab somewhere. Typically, these are all the engineers who provided meaningful work to a project. This is another helpful aspect of the USPTO Database, in that you will oftentimes come across patents that involve several different inventors, which could potentially be a recruitment jackpot. Oftentimes these “inventors” work for well-known companies, or “assignees,” and are submitting patent applications on their behalf.

Each patent application also has an abstract—a short, one-paragraph summary of the invention that goes at the beginning of the submission form. The purpose of the patent abstract is to provide a short and sweet overview of the proposed concept. Subsequently, abstracts come in very handy when you are searching for inventors in the USPTO Database.

Every patent is also assigned various classifications, which is simply the Office of Patent Classification’s numerical system for the categorical organization of all patent applications. Classifications are basically akin to “tags”, and they are an enormously helpful tool in the recruiting search process because they help you find inventors according to professional field and industry.

So, to recap, the key things to be aware of when looking up a patent are the inventor (or inventors), the assignee, the abstract and the classification numbers:

How do I make use of this activity?

So, you are on the hunt for potential computer programming and software engineers who have experience working with VMware, and you want to see what the USPTO Database has to offer. As previously mentioned, you can kick off your quest using Google’s patent search tool. Brainstorm and type in keywords related to the purpose, use and composition of the invention. These keywords can be generic, i.e., “virtualization software,” or you cut straight to the chase and simply search for “VMware” to bring up all of the patent applications submitted by VMware, a.k.a., all of the new and exciting stuff that VMware is currently working on right now — along with the people who worked on it.

If you click on the first patent listed in the search results shown above, it will take you to this page, which has the patent number, the abstract, all of the inventors associated with the patent and all of the patent’s classification numbers.

As you can see, it contains several pieces of valuable information. You now have the patent abstract, the name of the inventor, the name of the assignee, and the patent’s various classifications. You can read the abstract to get a general sense of what the patent entails, thereby gaining additional insight into the specific skills of the inventors who worked on it. Once you’ve assessed that the patent is indeed something that required the kind of professional talent you are seeking, you can click on the classifications link, which will pop you down to the bottom of the page and show you both the patent’s U.S. and international classification tags:

Now, if you navigate to the Classification Search page on the USPTO website, you can type in one of the classification numbers from this particular patent application and submit a search query to find out what category it represents. So, for example, you can input 711/162 and select “Definitions” in the Select Content box. Then you just need to click “Submit” to conduct the search.

Following the steps above will take you to this page, which instantly offers some insight into the inventors’ specific skill sets and areas of expertise:

Another method for searching the USPTO Database is to browse through general classifications and specific company assignees. To search by assignee, simply navigate to the USPTO Application Full Image and Text Database search page and type in the company name and select “Assignee” in the Field 1 dropdown menu:

To do a more specific search, you can take advantage of the second field and search for a patents assignee, crossed with classification, or keywords. Doing the simple VMware assignee search yields this page:

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Another way to search the USPTO Database is to simply browse classifications that are of interest to you and see what types of patents and associated inventors turn up as a result. To begin a general classification search, you should navigate to the Patent Classification page and click on “Browse Index to USPC.” (USPC stands for the United States Patent Classification System.) That will take you to a page that looks like this:

Classifications are arranged alphabetically, so you can navigate to your areas of interest that way. The site also gives you the option to view the index in PDF form, or in html. Let’s say you want to find out the classification codes for patents that involve “Data Programming.” Simply click on the “D” and find the topic you are looking for:

Now, you can plug those classification codes into the classification search tool and find all patents that have those specific tags.

Results page:

Google Patent Advanced Search is another excellent way to discover potential candidates, because it offers the ability to conduct a very precise search of patent applications using a multitude of keywords all at once.

In the example above, we have put in an advanced search query targeting the software engineering staff of Apple, Adobe and Facebook, and we have constrained that search to the last three years. This particular search yields a result page like this:

Or, let’s say you are looking to find people who have experience with network security. You can type in your keywords directly, using the appropriate search formatting, i.e.: inassignee:”proofpoint” | inassignee:”palo alto networks” | inassignee:”barracuda networks” | inassignee:”bluecoat systems”

Scrolling down and browsing these patents that have been submitted by Barracuda Networks, eventually brings us to a particular application submitted by a programmer by the name of Paul Royal.

Remember how we said computer programmers and engineers are often the people with the worst LinkedIn profiles? Look what happens when we try to find Paul Royal of Barracuda Networks on LinkedIn:

Thanks to Google’s advanced patent search, you’ve now discovered a key inventor from Barracuda who doesn’t exist on LinkedIn. This means you have the inside track to some genuine talent.

You can also search for inventors by name in the USPTO Database. Just navigate to the USPTO website’s Patent Full-Text and Image Database Advanced Search page and conduct your search using the field “inventor name.” In this instance we’ll use Matt Ginzton, an inventor we found in one of our earlier VMware Google patent searches:

Searching for Matt Ginzton the inventor on the USPTO database will bring up all patents associated with his name:

How do I know if the person I’ve found is truly qualified? So, you’ve found Matt Ginzton and the USPTO Database has given you enough information to confirm that he is, in fact a qualified VMware expert, and that he might be just the person you’ve been hoping to find and recruit. What more can the USPTO reveal about Matt Ginzton? As demonstrated above, you can find his patents and drill down into each application to find out more information about his specific skills and areas of expertise. You can also get information about Matt Ginzton’s patents using Google:

Clicking through to each of these patents will give you a sense of Matt Ginzton’s experience, skills and areas of expertise. Once you’ve done enough browsing and research to confirm that Matt Ginzton is someone you want to reach out to, you can plug his name into a more traditional networking site such as LinkedIn and use that as a means for making direct contact:

You can also use the new TalentBin plug-in to find out more about Matt:

How do I execute outreach?

Okay, so the USPTO Database has given you enough information on Matt Ginzton to know that he is someone you are interested in contacting to discuss potential job opportunities. But how do you get in touch with him? The one thing the USPTO Database does not provide is contact information for the various patent inventors. But, who says you have to rely solely on one website in your search for talent? Putting in just a tiny bit of effort and cross-referencing Matt Ginzton’s name on other social networking sites will likely lead you to his contact information in no time flat. So, for example, an initial search for Matt Ginzton on LinkedIn brings up his profile page:

Now, you can simply send Matt a private message on LinkedIn and move forward from there. Alternatively, you look at his current place of work and use a site like Jigsaw to do do a quick search and pull up the phone number for the main switchboard at VMware.

Now, Matt Ginzton, talented VMware engineer, is a mere phone call away. Also, let’s not forget all of the other social media sites out there that make it possible to contact Matt—Facebook, Twitter, his personal website, etc. Once you know the name and company of someone you are trying to find, the Internet makes it relatively easy to close the deal.

What have I learned, and why does it matter?

First and foremost, you’ve just discovered a potentially powerful recruiting tool that is under the radar and universally underused. This gives you an edge on your competitors because, chances are, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Database isn’t the first place they go searching for potential candidates. But, now that you understand its basic search functions, you can use it to research and uncover specific information about technically skilled professionals, and leverage it as a powerful recruitment tool. And you know that the individuals you find on the USPTO Database are talented go-getters, because they are producing original concepts and inventions. In other words, the USPTO Database gives you an inside lead to some of the most brilliant and innovative minds around the globe.

Patent image from bigstockphoto.

Pete Kazanjy is the founder of TalentBin, what might just be the world's coolest talent search engine. Nothing gets him more excited than thinking about how to help recruiters and sourcers make use of all the wonderful professional breadcrumbs candidates trail across the web nowadays. He's got a thing for purple squirrel hunting, and you can follow him at @kazanjy and TalentBin's team at @talentbinhiring

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