A “wiki” kind of approach is being borrowed for other spheres, including patent examinations. A simple idea, yet a brilliant one (as most inventions in patent law are). The August 21, 2006 issue of fortune reports:
The problem: an epidemic of shoddy patents.The solution: Wikipedia?That’s the basic concept behind a pilot program sponsored by IBM(Charts) and other companies, which the U.S. Patent and TrademarkOffice appears poised to green-light. The project would apply anadvisory version of the wiki approach to the patent-approval process.The issue is that patent applications have tripled in the past twodecades, leaving examiners only 20 hours on average to comb through acomplex application, research past inventions, and decide whether apatent should be granted.As a result, critics contend, quality has declined and lucrativepatents have been granted for ideas that weren’t actually new.One solution is to let astute outsiders weigh in during thepatent-review process, as online encyclopedia Wikipedia does, vastlyincreasing the information available to the patent examiner.New York Law School professor Beth Noveck floated the idea on her bloglast July, inspiring an article in Wired News. That, in turn,attracted the attention of IBM, which got behind the idea.Says Dave Kappos, vice president for intellectual-property law at IBM:”It’s a very powerful concept because it leverages the enormouscapabilities of the entire world of technical talent.”Working with IBM and the Patent Office, Noveck developed a system thatwill not only permit, for example, an inventor to show that anallegedly new idea is already in practice but also lets reviewers rateone another’s submissions, much as they do on eBay (Charts) and Amazon(Charts).Patent examiners will be given only the ten highest-rated pieces ofinput, and attempts to sabotage a competitor’s application bysubmitting phony material should theoretically be avoided.Test runCorporate sponsors including IBM, Microsoft (Charts), andHewlett-Packard (Charts) will make a total of 250 to 400 softwarepatents available for the pilot.Says the commissioner for patents, John Doll: “We’re just trying toput the finishing touches on the details before we roll it out to the[head of the Patent and Trademark Office] and get the final approvalto move ahead.”Noveck thinks the test could launch early in 2007. If successful, theapproach could then be implemented throughout the patent office. “Itseems fairly obvious,” says Noveck, “to try to tie together some ofthe systems of peer production of information that we’ve seen in theprivate sector.” And those who’ve complained about the patent processcould take part in fixing it.
Given the recent spate of frivolous applications at the USPTO (method of swinging on a swing AND cordless jump rope), we need more such ideas to ensure that a 20 year monopoly is only granted to those inventions that are truly meritorious.