Patent review goes Wiki
An idea born on a blog is endorsed by Microsoft and IBM, reports Fortune's Nicholas Varchaver.
By Nicholas Varchaver, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- 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 Trademark Office appears poised to green-light. The project would apply an advisory version of the wiki approach to the patent-approval process.

The issue is that patent applications have tripled in the past two decades, leaving examiners only 20 hours on average to comb through a complex application, research past inventions, and decide whether a patent should be granted.

As a result, critics contend, quality has declined and lucrative patents have been granted for ideas that weren't actually new.

One solution is to let astute outsiders weigh in during the patent-review process, as online encyclopedia Wikipedia does, vastly increasing the information available to the patent examiner.

New York Law School professor Beth Noveck floated the idea on her blog last 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 enormous capabilities of the entire world of technical talent."

Working with IBM and the Patent Office, Noveck developed a system that will not only permit, for example, an inventor to show that an allegedly new idea is already in practice but also lets reviewers rate one another's submissions, much as they do on eBay (Charts) and Amazon (Charts).

Patent examiners will be given only the ten highest-rated pieces of input, and attempts to sabotage a competitor's application by submitting phony material should theoretically be avoided.

Test run

Corporate sponsors including IBM, Microsoft (Charts), and Hewlett-Packard (Charts) will make a total of 250 to 400 software patents available for the pilot.

Says the commissioner for patents, John Doll: "We're just trying to put the finishing touches on the details before we roll it out to the [head of the Patent and Trademark Office] and get the final approval to move ahead."

Noveck thinks the test could launch early in 2007. If successful, the approach could then be implemented throughout the patent office. "It seems fairly obvious," says Noveck, "to try to tie together some of the systems of peer production of information that we've seen in the private sector." And those who've complained about the patent process could take part in fixing it.  Top of page