October 5th, 2005

Over at the the Demcracy Design Workshop site called “Do Tank” (and at this blog) they are exploring an idea called “Peer-to-Patent”.

Here’s an extended quote from Cairns blog that describes the idea:

The patent system is broken. As patent and antitrust scholar Rudolph Peritz has demonstrated, the United States Patent Office, which was intended to foster innovation and the promotion of progress in the useful arts, instead, creates uncertainty and monopoly. Underpaid and overwhelmed examiners routinely approve petitions without review. They struggle under the burden of 350,000 patent applications per year. Though supposedly expert, patent examiners are not versed in all the scientific disciplines. Until recently, even though more and more software applications were coming in, the patent office didn’t recognize training in computer science as a legitimate qualification. The same is true now for nanotech and other state of the art sciences. Congress requires the patent office to be self-funding, creating a further incentive to approve applications and pass them through the system. As a result, multiple patents have been given for the same invention or patents awarded for inventions discovered previously. The judicial review process that is intended to check regulatory dysfunction is not necessarily helping. The Federal Circuit, the specialty patent appeals court, rules overwhelmingly in favor of patent holders and awards large financial judgments for patent enforcement, spawning a new industry of ‘patent trolls,’ patenting for litigation not innovation.


But what if we could also make it easier to ensure that only the most worthwhile inventions got twenty years of monopoly rights? What if we could offer a way to protect the inventor’s investment while still safeguarding the marketplace of ideas from bad inventions? What if we could make informed decisions about scientifically complex problems before the fact?

This modest proposal harnesses social reputation and collaborative filtering technology to create a peer review system of scientific experts ruling on innovation. The idea of blue ribbon panels or advisory committees is not new. But the suggestion to use social reputation software – think Friendster, Linked in, eBay reputation points — to make such panels big enough, diverse enough and democratic enough to replace the patent examiner is.

‘With enough eyes,’ wrote Eric Raymond, ‘all bugs are shallow.’ By using social software, we can apply the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ – or, more accurately the wisdom of the experts – to complex social and scientific problems and bring more expertise to bear. This has far reaching implications beyond the patent process. It implies a fundamental rethinking of our assumptions about bureaucracy and expertise. “

It seems that in the current climate, a good amount of people in government, industry and business might be cold or resistant to an idea like this. There lots of people with vested interest in the current patent scheme.

Commercial patents may also be under pressure from a pending personal fabrication explosion that is looming on the horizon. The idea is that soon you’ll be able to design and build almost anything right on your own computer in your own home(or send the design to a frabricator who will then ship it to you). It seems inevitable that there will be open source design and fabrication groups who will share designs, and improve upon them and create a design “commons” where nothing like patents even exists. You could design a circuit board, for instance, then jump online and perhaps use collaborative design tools or discussion groups to improve and change the design.

These open source design and fabrication groups will probably also be under attack by traditional commercial interests, who will try to assert that their creations violate patents, and who will try to undermine the whole open source system ( as we’ve seen in recent years with campaigns against Linux).

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