Patents Q&A

When Should I Complete a Patent FTO Search?

If you have decided to perform a freedom-to-operate (FTO) or “clearance” study to try to reduce the risk of patent infringement, it will be necessary to determine when a patent search should be performed. This is a question about best practices for the timing of patent FTO/clearance searches.

The following timeline provides an overview of major timing considerations and the best time to conduct a patent FTO study.

In general, the ideal time to conduct at FTO search is before a product (or technical process/service) is commercially launched but after its technical design parameters are sufficiently established to know what the search should encompass. That is a window of time in between an initial business case and the beginning of research & development (R&D) efforts, on the one hand, and the formal product launch on the other. Additionally, the FTO search and accompanying legal analysis should be completed well enough in advance of the product’s commercial launch date to allow time for possible risk mitigation efforts before infringement liability might start to arise. If the FTO search uncovers a potentially problematic patent, you gain the most benefit from that information if you have allowed time to take responsive action before a product launch point-of-no-return.

In this context, a product launch can be anything that is potentially actionable as patent infringement, including making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing an infringing product in or into the USA. Though product launch infringement risks tend to be greatest when there is a major commercial release that makes the product (or process) widely publicly available, as opposed to mere preparatory efforts (such as prototyping) that might happen only on a private and confidential basis.

Having technical design parameters that are sufficiently established to know what the search is important. This allows the FTO searcher to understand what, specifically, should be searched—and what is excluded from the scope of the search. This process of determining what to search is referred to as “feature identification” (or sometimes “product decomposition”). This involves itemizing individual patent-sized technical features present in the product that are to be searched. But feature identification is only possible if there is sufficient technical information available. If R&D efforts are still in preliminary stages, or if there is really only a (non-technical) business case available, it may not be feasible to conduct an FTO search yet, or at least not for all planned product features. In those situations, a more generalized “landscape” search is perhaps more appropriate. Otherwise, the FTO search(es) for insufficiently-developed feature(s) may need to await further technical R&D.


After an FTO search is completed, there are various reasons why a later “update” search may be helpful. First of all, there is generally a delay of roughly eighteen (18) months between the filing and publication of most patent applications—and sometimes longer. This means that there may be relevant pending (but unpublished) patent applications that cannot be found during an initial FTO search. But, additionally, there may be changes to the technical design of planned or released product over time that merit further FTO searching and/or analysis. So, at what time(s) should such FTO search updates be performed? There are actually multiple possible approaches.

Discrete FTO Updates

A first approach is to perform one or more discrete FTO updates that resemble the initial FTO search and analysis. The timing of such discrete updates can be based on product- or technology-based milestones and/or calendar- or timeline-based milestones.

A typical product/technology milestone would be the release of a new or different version of a given product that has new, improved, or simply different features and functionality. An example would be releasing version 1.1 or 2.0 of a product that was previously cleared for its version 1.0 design only. Another typical product/technology milestone would be the occurrence of a particular pre-release design review phase. Technologies that have relatively long development cycles sometimes go through formalized design review processes with multiple distinct phases. In each phase changes to the product design might be introduced. For instance, a given initial product design might work well in prototype form but later be discovered to be too difficult to manufacture efficiently and thus might be replaced with a more easily manufactured design that was not previously searched.

An example of a calendar-based milestone would be to simply conduct a search update on a set periodic cycle, such as every year, or a single time after 18 months have passed since the original FTO search. There is no right or wrong update time period here, or even an particular appropriate number of updates. This is really a trade-off between the burden and expense of each update and the infringement risks likely raised, including the density of ongoing patenting on relevant technologies. Though recall that unpublished pending patent applications might first become available 18 months (or more) after the original FTO search.

Ongoing Monitoring

It is also possible to conduct ongoing monitoring of all patents and published applications for:

  • particular competitor(s)
  • particular technology area(s)

Ongoing monitoring can be facilitated through the use of alerts/saved criteria set up with proprietary search platforms or, alternatively, periodic (manual) searches. Such ongoing monitoring can take place in addition to or in place of other milestones or criteria for an FTO search. The main decision points with respect to ongoing monitoring are when to start and when to stop monitoring, and the scope regarding which competitor(s) and/or technology area(s) are included. Those factors are often highly influenced by the time and resource commitments required, as well as the relevance of those efforts to planned or ongoing commercial activities. It is worthwhile to periodically revisit the parameters for ongoing patent monitoring efforts, to ensure that those efforts are still relevant and appropriately focused.

Have an invention you would like to patent? Have a brand you would like to register as a trademark? Concerned about infringing someone else’s intellectual property? Is someone else infringing your IP? Need representation in an IP dispute? Austen is a patent attorney / trademark attorney who can help. These and other IP issues are his area of expertise. Contact Austen today to discuss.