Crowdsourcing Prior Art Search May Fix Broken U.S. Patent System

A new channel on a popular Q&A site could reduce the number of dubious patents issued in the U.S., something many in the tech sector say is vital to fostering further innovation.

The Ask Patents forum is the result of a collaboration between the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and StackExchange to engage the public in the patent examination process and better assure that new patents are issued only for truly innovative ideas.

The crucial step in determining the novelty of a patent application is the search for “prior art,” meaning any information or ideas relevant to the application that were publicly available before it was submitted.  If the ideas in the patent application are not substantially different from the prior art, the patent is denied.

Until now, the burden of that due diligence fell to Patent Office staff, who typically have no more than 18 hours per application to search for prior art.  The new forum will allow members of the general public to submit examples of prior art to be evaluated by the patent examiners.

A statement from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on the day the forum went live highlighted the advantages of crowdsourcing in the vetting of new patents:

The submission by third parties of prior art—the library of published patents, applications, or other publications in a specific technology area—allows the USPTO to tap directly into the U.S. innovation community. Submissions provide a fuller, more exhaustive scope of materials for examiners to review in determining the novelty of a given application. This new mechanism will help ensure that truly novel and non-obvious innovations obtain the intellectual property protection they deserve.

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