Jul 2

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Encouraging results from Peer-to-Patent

Congratulations to the organizers of Peer-to-Patent, 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 run-of-the-mill.

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 PDF format 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 everyone.

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 unwarranted patents.

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 patent litigation.

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 project.

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