Sunday, May 4, 2008

CASSIS - Not Just a Resort Town in the South of France

It's pretty remarkable how quickly the folks at the Patent and Trademark Office have moved the tools for patent searching from print to the Web. Less than ten years ago, most people would work with microfiche, CD ROMs, and usually some dusty old books for patent searching. The Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries were often only place people could get access to patent drawings and specifications, and the full patents often only went back to the 70's. For older patents, people needed to rely on the Official Gazette, which is still published, and shows only an abbreviated description of the invention with a few drawings. That solution proved pretty effective for people who could get to the libraries, but geography posed a pretty major obstacle for many people who didn't live anywhere near one of the 90 or so Depository libraries. (Most states only have one!)

Remote access was quite a boon for independent inventors. An electronic image of every patent is available over the internet; users can search the full text of patents from 1976 onward. And that's only using the tools created by the USPTO. PAT2PDF is a free web-based application that will retrieve patents by number and serve up a printer-friendly PDF. Google is in the process of making the entire set of patents searchable using their proprietary algorithms; what they have accomplished so far is pretty impressive.

This material didn't jump directly from books and fiche to the Internet, though. Like many early digital publishing ventures, there was a transition in which material was sent on discs, in this case DVD ROMs.

This system, called CASSIS (for Computer Aided Something Something Including Something), was a welcome arrival. Once we were set up, we had discs in our cabinets that gave us a 200 year back catalog of full text patents. We could keyword search, we could view the international classification orders, we could print images. With the CASSIS DVD-ROM set and the accompanying software, we finally had a complete set of patent drawings and specifications.

As I mentioned above, though, the images available through CASSIS became, shortly after CASSIS was released, available online. However, we still get the DVD ROMS: 4 discs of registered patents, 4 of patent applications, 4 Official Gazettes, and a handful of others relating to classification orders, trademarks, and other USPTO-related documents.

Is this CASSIS system a relic? This question comes up from time to time on both sides of the reference desk. Librarians, for our part, could use the space that's taken up by the DVD cases. We also have to make sure that everyone in the department knows how to help people use this sort of specialized computer system, or at least make sure that someone who knows how to use it is around. And library patrons sometimes wonder why all of the patent search books and websites insist that they physically come to the library to do a patent search. Isn't it all online? Shouldn't we dump the discs?

Yes to the former, no to the latter. Actually, canning the discs is not an option. As long as the USPTO considers the DVD's to be the official version of patents and applications sent to depository libraries, we have a legal requirement to keep them and make them available to everyone. Patents are an important legal and historical record, and the DVD's are a reliable and stable way, at least for now, for us to maintain an archive. All of the Web-based patent collections have some shortcomings, too -- the USPTO database, for instance, uses an unusual format for patent images. There's also very limited bibliographic data for patents issued before 1976. I wrote a post recently where I discuss Google Patent's problems. PAT2PDF is simply a retrieval tool with no search capabilities.

The shortcomings of these Internet-based patent collections speaks to the former question, as well. Technically speaking, every patent that is available on CASSIS is also available on the Internet. But there are still instances when physically coming into the library is still the best bet for a patent search.

One thing I often use CASSIS for is retrieving a list of patents. When you're doing a preliminary patent search, you often want to take a look at several patents. With the Web-based tools, you can retrieve one at a time. With CASSIS, you can create a list and retrieve them as a batch.

Another thing that CASSIS has going for it is that it's nearly devoid of typographical mistakes. Google is improving, but when correctness and comprehensiveness are important, as they often are in patent searching, it's useful to know that you're using the officially endorsed search tool.

I'll concede that CASSIS probably isn't necessary for most people. I know that I often warn readers about the dangers of a lot of the patent searching techniques that that make the process easier. I don't dislike the technology, and probably 90% of the people I help find patents could do just fine using Google or the USPTO website. I also realize, however, that reliable, accurate information is often more important than convenient access to information, and I'd like to make sure people know how find it, or at least know how to ask me how to find it.

If you would like to take your patent search to the next level, I'll be happy to demonstrate CASSIS here in the Government Information Center. And you don't have to hurry -- I think it'll be around for a while.

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