SAN JOSE, Calif. A pilot program in its second year shows promise for improving what many observers say is the poor quality of many of today's patents. The program lets citizen experts on the Web help patent examiners find prior art.
The proponents of the program gave an informal update on its progress at a time when patent applications and backlogs are at an all-time high and some groups have called for restructuring the patent office.
The Peer-to-Patent program, administered by the New York Law School, has contributed to just 70 applications to date. About 2,000 experts have signed up as volunteers to conduct prior art searches and as many as 400 have been active to date, including attorneys as far afield as Australia and Malaysia.
Volunteers have 90 days to find examples of prior art on an application submitted to the program. The best ten examples are forwarded to a patent examiner. Applicants who volunteer for the program get an opportunity to jump to the front of an examiner's queue.
The program currently is limited to use in relatively new software and business methods fields where examiners might find little prior art in their traditional database searches. So far about a quarter of the volunteer submissions have been deemed meaningful by examiners.
"That's a pretty high success rate given nominal cost of running the program," said Mark Webbink, executive director of the Center for Patent Innovations at New York Law School that administers the program.
Big companies such as General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Microsoft have contributed a total of about $2 million to get the program up and running. Webbink estimates that with a budget of about $2.5 million/year the program could process up to 50,000 applications/year, still just a fraction of the half a million filed each year.
Webbink believes the program could gradually be expanded to cover more subject areas. It is not likely to solve the problem of the backlog at the patent office, but it could improve patent quality, he said.
"We think the outlook is pretty good," he said. "Examiners have been very positive of the program, and we are looking for the support of Barack Obama who cited the program in campaign as good use of technology," he added.
However, others note, that at higher volumes, applicants cannot all be promised a faster exam. With their chief incentive removed, fewer applicants may participate.
The Peer-to-Patent system is "a good step, but you need large and small companies and individual inventors and universities involved," said Kevin Rivette, an intellectual property expert who chairs the advisory committee of the U.S. Patent Office.
The program is a good addition to the current overburdened exam system, but it cannot replace it, he added. "We can't leave this up to an open-source solution because at the end of the day we are granting an exclusive right," he added.