Project to streamline patent reviews nearing launch

An Internet-based peer-review project aimed at streamlining the U.S. patent system will begin testing next week. The initiative, which is touted as a social-networking first for the federal government, is scheduled to debut publicly in June, its director said Monday.

The pilot, led by the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School and the Patent and Trademark Office, initially will accept 250 patent applications from major high-tech firms. IBM, Intel, Microsoft and others have agreed to be guinea pigs, said Beth Noveck, the professor leading the effort.

This communal approach will let the public submit existing inventions known as "prior art" and comment on their relevance to patent applications, Noveck said at a Capitol Hill briefing. Reviewers will rank submissions so PTO examiners can review the prior art deemed most relevant by the community.

Noveck, who showed several screen shots of the software for the first time, believes the data necessary for making high quality patent determinations "is not always to be found in one centralized database or within one centralized government agency."

The rollout of the "Peer to Patent Project" coincides with increased congressional attention to patent reform. Recent House and Senate proposals would have created a definitive test for "willful" infringement, and the pilot can further that goal, she said. "This is not a substitute but a compliment for a reform agenda."

Noveck listed several changes to the patent system that would improve the process in conjunction with her pilot. Universal publication of all patent applications is needed to embolden third-party commentary on patent ideas. Currently, she said publication can only occur with consent, but "we need to move to a place where it is necessary."

Public funding also should be tied to requirements of universal participation in 21st-century peer review. The same government scientists who "spend time reading grant applications [should] take some time to read patent applications," Noveck said. That might avoid the problem of "tying up patent innovation that happens downstream."

IBM's Marc Williams, whose company is part of Noveck's pilot, believes the patent system is suffering due to massive application backlogs and limited PTO staffing. He said the initiative can help by "bringing expertise to the patent examiner that they wouldn't otherwise get" because "people are now willing to come together in an Internet community."

Kaz Kazenske, an intellectual property expert at Microsoft, said he also is "glad we got the call" to participate in the project.

"We truly believe we need to look at improving the patent system," he said. "We're at an important time with respect to legislation and at an important time with this project."

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