According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is planning to launch a trial project in which outsiders will be able to comment on proposed patents that are working their way through the (incredibly time-consuming) patent application process. In effect, people will be allowed to post comments on patents and then other users will be allowed to vote on those comments, a la Digg.com.
This proposal is almost certain to bring out the anti-“wisdom of crowds” folks (yes, I’m talking about you, Nick, and your pal Andrew). After all, why would we let something as sophisticated as the U.S. patent system be opened up to the yobs and yahoos who pollute Digg.com and Slashdot and every other social network out there? Why indeed. Perhaps because somewhere out there is a person who knows something about one of the patents the USPTO is looking at, and can help the office decide whether there is prior art, whether the invention is too obvious, etc.
In the past, the problem (or at least one of them) has been that patent examiners are snowed under by applications and in many cases either don’t have the time or the expertise to ferret out evidence of “prior art,” which is patent lingo for an invention that is similar to the thing a person wants a patent for. In extreme cases, this can help produce multibillion-dollar patent infringement trials such as the one that tied up Research In Motion for so many years.
“For the first time in history, it allows the patent-office examiners to open up their cubicles and get access to a whole world of technical experts,” said David J. Kappos, vice president and assistant general counsel at IBM.
New York Law School Professor Beth Noveck, who helped spark the trial project (which relied on advice from CmdrTaco of Slashdot.org), says it will bring about “the first major change to our patent examination system since the 19th century.” And the Post story notes how ironic it is that the body looking over crucial technology patents is woefully lacking in actual technology — and in some cases is prevented from even using the Internet.
Tony Hung at Deep Jive Interests doesn’t think it’s such a great plan, and has come up with a whole pile of reasons why.