Continuing the trend of open review that's been cropping up in the world of scholarly research, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is starting a pilot project wherein people on the Internet can submit comments on patent claims. This is a very interesting idea and (although I'm sure there will be hiccups) a potentially valuable one.
To learn more about the program, I suggest you read this article, "Open Call from the Patent Office" in the Washington Post. In a nutshell, the plan is to post selected patent applications on the Internet and then accept comments from online denizens. The commenters will be subject to a community rating system, similar to that used for Wikipedia, Ebay, or other community sites such as Slashdot. Think of it as a digital meritocracy. If you have proven yourself to be someone who gives good information, you'll be rated higher than someone who's full of hot air. While the Internet is peculiarly rich in posers and people with vivid internal realities, it's also a way to tap into a vast collection of the interested and informed.
A System Under Stress
The USPTO has its hands full. In 2005, the National Academy of Public Administration published a 298-page report documenting problems. An article at FCW.com highlights some of them, including the high attrition rate. To quote from the article "In fiscal 2004, the average attrition rate was 10.1 percent for patent examiners who review applications for computer architecture and information security software.[...] Because of the high turnover, only 45 percent of patent examiners have been on the job for more than five years. Agency officials say an examiner needs five to seven years on the job to become proficient. The panel found that USPTO lacks an adequate number of seasoned patent examiners to operate efficiently."
The USPTO has also granted several widely ridiculed patents, for example a method of exercising a cat (U.S. Patent 5,443,036). In the realm of software and IT in general, O'Reilly maintains a list of controversial patents here. For a further discussion of perceived problems with the current patent mechanism, here's a great article from Business Week.
Many Eyes Make Light Work
So why do I like this idea? Because I want the USPTO to be smarter about which patents it grants. I cringe at some of the business practice patents awarded because they're so vague and so broad that they act as barriers to innovation. As the number of patents grows, inevitably there will be proposed patents for topics or technologies that will be, no matter how well trained the examiner, outside of their scope. I hope that this approach will act as a reality check to the current process. I know that there will be attempts to game the system; that's a given. But it's a crazy idea, and it just might work.