US government and Stack Exchange launch crowdsourced patent process

A new partnership between the US government and a popular Q&A site may help rid the country of the low quality patents that have produced an endless series of lawsuits that threaten to stunt parts of the technology sector.

Starting today, the website Stack Exchange will run a channel devoted to patents on which the public can help scrutinize pending application. The move serves to crowdsource the arduous task of examining patents, permitting the general public to submit information that will help the patent office decide whether or not something is a new and useful invention.

It works like this. Once a patent examination is made public, anyone can submit it to Stack Exchange and launch a discussion. Others can then offer “prior art” that they believe is relevant to determining whether the patent should be granted. The collection of prior art is then sent on to an examiner at the USPTO who makes the final decision. To prevent gaming of the system, people are allowed to make only one submission with up to three pieces of prior art (additional submissions are possible but require a $120 fee).

The move is a boon for the Patent Office which has been lambasted for issuing a flood of seemingly obvious patents, including ones for emoticons, the use of auto-complete and a method of exercising a cat with a laser pointer. While such patents may seem simply frivolous, they are also ammunition for so-called “patent trolls” — shell companies that don’t make anything but make a living suing companies that do.

Crowdsourcing the prior art process will reduce the number of bad patents by helping examiners, who typically have around 18 hours to make a decision, locate material that shows an invention to be obvious or not new. Until now, the ability for third parties to submit prior art has been very limited.

Stack Exchange appears well-suited to vet patents. The site, which launched in 2008, is known for attracting communities of experts who answer questions on topics like software, photography and cooking. Stack Exchange also uses a sophisticated system of moderators and algorithms to keep discussions relevant and on point. In a phone interview, company executive Alex Miller explained why it’s taking part in the patent project:

“Like almost any tech company, we think there’s a problem with patents and think something must be done. We think this is great way to make progress on patent problems as work toward fund amentsl reform,” said Miller. “The second thing is empowers people who have this knowledge [to contribute to the patent system].”

The Stack Exchange project comes as other tech companies work to rein in a growing spate of patent lawsuits. Twitter, for example, is developing a contract that promises its engineers that their work won’t be used to fuel patent aggression. Meanwhile, Google will be contributing to the new crowdsourcing initiative by adding a “discuss” button to its patent pages that will bring users to Stack Exchange.

The crowdsourcing initiative is another coup for David Kappos, the popular USPTO director who started his tenure in 2009. The current project grew out of an earlier experiment called “Peer to Patent” in which outside experts were invited to join the patent examination process. Kappos has also taken other steps to modernize and invigorate the patent office such as opening a series of satellite offices where examiners specialize in areas of regional innovation. The patent office provided the following statement:

“By introducing third party input into the examination process for the first time since the inception of our nation’s intellectual property system, we’re able to expand the scope of access to prior art in key areas like software patents. This will improve the examination process and advance the Administration’s ongoing commitment to transparency and open government,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO David Kappos. “We encourage our nation’s innovators to follow Stack Exchange’s example and assist us as we improve the examination process and resulting patent quality that will drive our economy and create jobs and exports.”