Google Patent Search has always been far better than the Patent Office's creaky internal tool, and today it's getting even more flexible: the company has added in the full collection of European patents, and there's a clever new prior art finder that automatically identifies key phrases and inventor names from a patent to quickly search previous patents, the web, Google Scholar, and Google Books for similar inventions.

Jon Orwant, the leader of Google's Patent Search team, says traffic to Patent Search has doubled recently — a trend he thinks is "correlated" to interest in the various high-stakes mobile patent lawsuits that are underway. "People are thinking about patents a whole lot more," he says. "It's remarkable from our end."

"People are thinking about patents a whole lot more."

The prior art finder is fairly simple as a concept: it skims through all the text from a given patent, identifies key terms and phrases, and composes search queries out of them for Google's various databases. (YouTube was initially among the search tabs after patent examiners told the Patent Search team they often find interesting prior art on the video site, but Orwant ultimately decided the search results were "not relevant enough.") Orwant says his goal is to make things "a little easier and a little faster" for patent examiners, who typically have just 19 hours to review a patent application before issuing a first response — but he's careful to note that it's a "supplement, not a substitute for other systems that exist."

Still, it's definitely fun to play with — here's one of Apple's patents from the ongoing lawsuit, and one of Samsung's. And the new European patents in the system are beautifully presented, which always makes reading and understanding patents easier. Orwant says the team is planning to rapidly iterate the prior art finder to make it better at reading claims and generating search terms, and that ultimately his goal is to give people a new way to search the massive amount of data in the patent system. "A little more open, a little more unstructured, a little more dynamic," he says. "We're hoping this gives patent examiners and other professionals a new way to search."