Open Call From the Patent Office

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007; 3:34 PM

The government is about to start opening up the process of reviewing patents to the modern font of wisdom: the Internet.

The Patent and Trademark Office is starting a pilot project that will not only post patent applications on the Web and invite comments but also use a community rating system designed to push the most respected comments to the top of the file, for serious consideration by the agency's examiners. A first for the federal government, the system resembles the one used by Wikipedia, the popular user-created online encyclopedia.

"For the first time in history, it allows the patent-office examiners to open up their cubicles and get access to a whole world of technical experts," said David J. Kappos, vice president and assistant general counsel at IBM.

It's quite a switch. For generations, the agency responsible for awarding patents, one of the cornerstones of innovation, has kept its distance from the very technological advances it has made possible. The project, scheduled to begin in the spring, evolved out of a meeting between IBM, the top recipient of U.S. patents for 14 years in a row, and New York Law School Professor Beth Simone Noveck. Noveck called the initiative "revolutionary" and said it will bring about "the first major change to our patent examination system since the 19th century."

Most federal agencies invite interested parties to weigh in on proceedings, and even the patent office allows some public comment, but never to the degree now suggested .

Until now, patent examiners rarely sought outside opinions, instead relying on scientific writings and archived records of previous patents. For security reasons -- in particular, out of concern that examiners could inadvertently reveal proprietary information if their online searches were tracked -- patent officials have at times even been barred from using the Internet for research.

But their mission has grown increasingly unwieldy. Last year, the agency's 4,000 examiners, headquartered in Alexandria, completed a record 332,000 applications. The tremendous workload has often left examiners with little time to conduct thorough reviews, according to sympathetic critics.

Under the pilot project, some companies submitting patent applications will agree to have them reviewed via the Internet. The list of volunteers already contains some of the most prominent names in computing, including Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, as well as IBM, though other applicants are welcome.

Brigid Quinn, a spokeswoman for the patent office, said the program will begin with about 250 applications from the realm of software design, where it is especially difficult for examiners to find related documentation. Unlike specialists in many other fields, software designers often forgo publishing their innovations in technical journals and elsewhere.

Anyone who believes he knows of information relating to these proposed patents will be able to post this online and solicit comments from others. But this will suddenly make available reams of information, which could be from suspect sources, and so the program includes a "reputation system" for ranking the material and evaluating the expertise of those submitting it.

With so much money riding on patent decisions -- for instance, a federal jury ordered Microsoft last month to pay $1.52 billion for infringing two digital-music patents -- the program's designers acknowledge that the incentive to manipulate the system is immense.

"I'm sure there will be a degree of gaming. There always is," Kappos said.

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