Before you start inventing, creating, investing and publishing you should do a patent search to see if anyone else came up with the same idea. While it is usually a good idea to let a patent attorney handle the research everyone can get a quick overview individually and completely without additional costs.
One website that is offering a patent search is Patents.com, a simple free website that lets you search US Patents, US Design Patents, US Patent Applications and European Patents. The search supports the basic Boolean operators AND, OR and NOT.
Instead of entering text you can also enter an application, publication or patent number right away and search for inventors, attorneys, agents, assignees and owners. Three additional search forms are available.
The advanced search accepts a data range and additional variables like the assistant and primary examiner or foreign references.
Expert Search combines abbreviations with wildcards and special searches allowing advanced and complex queries. Bulk Search finally allows to search for multiple patents at once by using a comma delimited list of patent numbers.
One area where Patents.com fails is information about their database and source of information. Are they as reliable as the official sources? How often are their patents updated, do they always publish the latest right away? Questions that only a patent attorney could answer.
The patent search engines enable you to research a topic of interest, either because you want to initially check if your idea has not been patented before, or if you are interested into a topic and want to learn more about it.