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The idea in question is for a gardening tool.

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If you go through all the sites listed below with all the search terms you can think of and don't find anything, you still can't be sure there isn't a relevant patent somewhere. – dspig Sep 21 '12 at 9:01

Most countries provide a search engine for their patent data. Additionally there are third-party search engines for patent data. Most of these will (all the big ones do) search the text of the patents for the supplied terms. Below are some links for the most popular tools. If you are looking for US patents, I would start with Google Patents first to get a sense of what's out there. From there you can get more detailed with the USPTO's site (which has a fairly weighty searching syntax). I don't search for European assets that much, but I generally used Espacenet.

Official:

Unofficial:

Unofficial (paid):

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Nice thorough answer – ihtkwot Sep 20 '12 at 21:44
    
Important note: if you do a search, find relevant patents, AND FILE for a patent, you may have to tell the patent office what you found (at least in the US). I would definitely recommend speaking with an attorney at some point regarding that issue since it can have serious ramifications down the line if the patent is granted. (See tms.org/pubs/journals/jom/matters/matters-9707.html). – aosik Sep 20 '12 at 21:49
    
Espacenet has most of the US patents too - possibly not this week's but most. Their classification search is utilising 30 years of examiner expertise and soon there will be the CPC used by both EPO and USPTO – mplungjan Sep 22 '12 at 16:36

Some Unofficial (paid) sites for searching patents in addition to the sites already mentioned:

Micropat


Thomson Innovation

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The best way to search if your idea has been patented is through the Google Patents application which can accept multiple names of ideas, synonyms and dates. For the link I provided, simply replace the words with descriptive words for your invention, for example, a Google Patent Search for "Shovel" and "Hammer" and "Garden" will yield accurate results, including this patent, which covers many 'types' of possible gardening tools:

An elongated shaft to receive a working head of a garden implement. The elongated shaft comprises a terminal portion sized to receive the working head of the garden implement, and measuring indicia applied to the elongated shaft over at least a portion of the length of the elongated shaft.

Here is a link for a Google Patent Prior Art search for the previous keywords filed under "A01B1/02 Spades & Shovels" category.

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