Patent Evaluation Goes Public

Last Updated Aug 20, 2007 7:17 PM EDT

USPTO sealInventions today are more complicated than ever, which makes it hard to judge the quality of new patents and relatively easy to get protection for half-baked ideas. Sooner or later, those half-baked inventions become the subject of bank-breaking litigation, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently said that needs to stop. To help solve this problem, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will launch a pilot program in the IT sector, where the public will be encouraged to scrutinize new patent applications. A NY Times article by Steve Lohr reports on the reform:
"There ought to be a shared responsibility for patent quality among the patent office, the applicants and the public," [Jon Dudas, director of the USPTO] said in an interview yesterday. "If everything is done right at the front end, we'll have to worry a lot less about litigation later." [...]
The patent office is experimenting with the concept of opening the examination process to outsiders, inviting public peer reviews. On June 15, Mr. Dudas said, the patent office will begin a pilot project for open reviews of software patents. The patents in the pilot program will be posted on a Web site, and members of the public with software expertise will be allowed to send the patent office technical references relevant to the patent claims.
The public scrutiny idea is the latest in a series of improvements to the patent process. The USPTO added 1,200 examiners last year, growing its staff to 5,000 total. In the first quarter of this year, the ratio of approved applications dropped to 49 percent from 72 percent back in 2000. But some say going public will be the key to ensuring high-quality patents:
The patent office, said Josh Lerner, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has made a real effort to improve patent quality in the last few years. Yet [...] the growing complexity of technology makes it more difficult for a single person -- applicant or examiner -- to assess the innovative merit of a patent claim. "That's why I think really opening the examination process to public peer review is so important," Mr. Lerner said. "While the patent office has shown a willingness to experiment with openness, I would put that at the center."
For anyone who's read James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, that sounds like a great idea. And while some innovation machines like 3M or HP may be challenged by the reform, companies are bound to enjoy a welcomed drop in litigation expense.

(Image USPTO Seal by USPTO)