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Open Call From the Patent Office

Maintaining a reliable Web-based reputation has become an increasingly pressing concern for Web companies as they seek to reassure users that they can trust the strangers they do business with online. So the designers of the new patent-review system consulted some of the Internet's leading experts on reputation, Noveck recounted. These included specialists from eBay and Rob Malda, aka CmdrTaco, the founder of the popular technology Web site Slashdot.org.

EBay, for example, established its position as the Web's premier auctioneer after pioneering a public feedback system that has buyers and sellers rate one another based on customer service, the quality of the goods, and timeliness of delivery and payments. Amazon.com, the Web's leading bookseller, provides reviews of its offerings, then allows readers to rank its reviewers based on the usefulness of their evaluation.

The new patent system will try to help separate experts from posers by offering extensive details about the people sending information to the site. To help others evaluate the quality of this information, called prior art, each posting will include several measures gauging the quality of his other contributions to the site. Patent examiners, for instance, will award "gold stars" to people who previously submitted the most useful information for judging earlier applications, Noveck said.

Ultimately, those registered to participate in this online forum will vote on all the nominated information, and the top 10 items will be passed on to the examiner, who will serve as the final arbiter on whether to award a patent.

Noveck said the online program would not only produce better information for examiners to consider but also make the patent process more democratic. "The idea is to make something as important as decision-making about innovation more transparent to the public and more accountable to the public," she said.

During discussions about the patent review project, its developers initially considered limiting or weighting the votes to reflect the expertise of the participants. For the time being, they have instead decided to go with one person, one vote.

But Noveck and others involved in creating the online review system said it was likely to evolve. To assure that the outcome can be trusted, some of those involved in designing the program say some kind of weighted voting system may eventually be required.

"If voting is necessary, you'll have to have some rules about who gets to vote," said Paul Resnick, a professor of information at the University of Michigan.


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