Agency will test community reviews of patents

A trial online peer-review process slated to launch early next year to streamline the U.S. patent system will be a social-networking first for the federal government, the project's director said at the American Intellectual Property Law Association annual meeting Thursday.

The initiative, led by the Patent and Trademark Office and the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School, comes after recent industry and congressional attention to the backlog of patent applications and overburdened examiners.

The "wiki" approach of the Community Patent Review Project will let the public submit existing inventions known as "prior art" and comment on their relevance to specific parts of applications. Reviewers then will rank submissions so examiners can review prior art deemed most relevant by the community.

The yearlong test will begin by accepting about 200 patent applications, said Beth Noveck, the New York Law School professor leading the effort. IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and other high-tech firms have agreed to be the first to submit applications, she said.

The effort is unique because it is restricted to software patents, PTO spokeswoman Brigid Quinn said in an interview. One of the perks of participating is that those applicants will get "moved to the front of the line" for review, she said.

The project's wiki-based formula that relies on collaborative software is popular in the private sector, but PTO is paving the way for the government, Noveck said. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia whose entries can be edited by anyone, pioneered the practice in 2001, and Amazon.com and Google then began offering mechanisms for the public to provide expertise and have it winnowed into a useful format.

Noveck said she is mindful of examiners' workload woes and anticipates that the system will not lead to more red tape for the agency. The aim is to "enable a limited amount of the best information to be transmitted from the public to the PTO," she said.

Inventors also should welcome the project because it does not saddle them and their attorneys with the costs of moving patent applications through the system, Noveck said. Having "many eyeballs vet the application" and share the administrative burden will result in patents that are "stronger, better and less prone to litigation," she said.

But patent attorney Bruce Sunstein seemed skeptical. The risk of opening the review process to more people online could make good patents harder to get, he said. He noted that there are "real costs associated in denying or delaying patent coverage to innovators."

Still, Sunstein was eager to see the PTO's new system in action. He warned Noveck to "go boldly where no man has gone before, but carefully."

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