Feds enlist public's help on techy patent filings

A yearlong pilot project called Peer to Patent aims to help patent examiners by compiling public comments about computer- and software-related applications submitted by companies like Red Hat, Intel and IBM.

Critics of the U.S. patent system have long griped that it's entirely too easy to get patents these days on obvious or otherwise unmeritorious inventions--in part because overworked patent examiners don't have ready access to information about what's already out there.

A yearlong pilot project, endorsed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in partnership with the New York Law School, is supposed to help.

The goal behind the Peer to Patent Project, officially launched last Friday, is to allow anyone who's interested to weigh in on 250 pending patent applications belonging to one of the more difficult categories to decipher: that including computer architecture, software and information security.

The project's Web site provides forums for discussing applications and tools for researching and sharing "prior art" references--that is, evidence that an invention already exists. It then allows for the top 10 of those references to be forwarded on to the Patent Office.

Right now, five applications from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel and Red Hat are available for review. A number of other firms, including CA, General Electric, Intellectual Ventures, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and Yahoo, have also put in requests to participate.

Involvement in the project comes with some perks: Instead of having to deal with the average four-year waiting period to get a patent application reviewed, the applications selected to participate can essentially butt ahead in line and get turned around in one year, according to the project's organizers.

An idea resembling the Patent Office-sanctioned project has also cropped up in the form of a site called WikiPatents.com, which was launched last summer by a patent lawyer based in Salt Lake City. The United Kingdom is reportedly considering a similar approach.

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