A patent is only as good as the enforcement of protection available. South Africa has a track record of Patent enforcement which extends back some 150 years or more...  
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  There are two electronic databases that we often use to conduct patent searches. The first is the US Patent Office database, which only covers US patents. The second is the European Patent Office database, which covers a number of countries and regions as well as PCT International patent applications. Such a search will normally be done to see whether an invention is new. This is referred to as a novelty search and the results are referred to as prior art.
 
USPTO search
 
Go to: http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-bool.html

A suitable first (and optional second) term can be typed into the text window(s) on the left.

The field window(s) should normally be set to search for the terms in the Abstract (this is a short general description of what each patent covers). It may also be appropriate to search for a term in the Title.

Once the terms and fields are selected, press “search” to retrieve the results. The separate documents can be viewed by clicking on the links in the results list.

For full copies of US patents, go to http://www.freepatentsonline.com/ and register as a user. We prefer searching in the USPTO official database but this website provides full copies of PDF documents which must otherwise be downloaded one page at a time.
 
EPO search
 
Go to: http://ep.espacenet.com/advancedSearch?locale=en_EP

Suitable terms can be typed into the second field window to search in the title or abstract.

Then press “search” to retrieve the results. The separate documents can again be viewed by clicking on the links in the results list.

Tips:

US and UK English very often have a different word for the same thing (for example, “tap” and “faucet”). Keep this in mind when selecting search terms.

The patent databases also list patents that were found to be relevant to a particular patent. Once you have identified a patent that is relevant or close to your invention, it may be helpful to work through this prior art list.

Please note: Electronic patent databases are convenient to conduct structured searches of this nature. However, if something has been done before and not patented it will not be found in such a search. Patents are also normally only published about 18 months after filing. This means that a patent database search will only show you inventions that are over 18 months old. A general search on the Internet can therefore also be useful.
 
 
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