Congratulations to the organizers of
which is carrying off one of the most audacious experiments in
Internet activism in our day. A lot of ink has been spilled about
Barack Obama’s application of social networking techniques to
presidential campaigning (and to Ron Paul’s successful fund-raising
before that) but Peer-to-Patent makes those achievements seem entirely
The premise behind Peer-to-Patent, which many observers called
impractical, was that thousands of experts in technical fields would
flock to the site to read patent applications (if you’ve ever read
one, you’d hike the stakes against success several notches right
there) and would find prior art that would lead to rejection or
restrictions on patent claims.
Well, it’s working. A report released by the non-profit project in
reports the data from surveys and an analysis of patents handled
during the first year of the project. The sample is small (23 patents)
but bears some impressive fruit.
First, people are signing up: over 2,000 so far. Second, they’re
submitting prior art: 202 pieces. Most important: they’re enjoying the
work and would volunteer again.
The patent examiners–employees of the US Trademark and Patent Office
who are responsible for evaluating applications–also like the
project. They overwhelmingly say they appreciate the submissions and
would like to work with the community more.
How about the proof of the patent pudding? Nine rejections of patent
claims cited prior art found by the Peer-to-Patent volunteers.
Even more significant is the sources of the prior art. When
patent examiners reject a patent, they usually cite previous patents
as prior art. This has undeniable value by keeping someone who is not
truly an inventor from gaining control over an existing technology,
but it doesn’t perform the crucial role of the Patent Office in
protecting public information that is already open for use by
So when the Peer-to-Patent project finds that volunteers submit a
relatively high percentage of non-patent prior art, it suggests that
they can really keep free information free: unencumbered by
We need a lot more data, of course, before we’ll know whether
Peer-to-Patent really works. But it’s different from other
patent-busting projects because it’s structured around effective group
participation. It’s not just a form to fill out or a Slashdot-style,
free-for-all comment page. It’s a real community, with a clearly
defined purpose and a spirit of cooperation.
Even if it becomes institutionalized, Peer-to-Patent can’t fix
everything that’s wrong about the patent system. That will require a
close look at laws, at patent office regulations and funding, and even
at the structure and incentives in the court system that handles
What Peer-to-Patent does suggest is that governments and
volunteers from around the world can work together to solve problems.
Government can become more efficient and respond more flexibly to
public needs, while individuals can effectively wield power by working
together. Technology is central to the effort. Let’s watch this