IBM taps open source to improve patent quality

Patent king IBM works with the Patent Office and OSDL to increase scrutiny and review of patent applications.

IBM is expected to announce Tuesday that it won more U.S. patents than any other company and that it will participate in three initiatives to improve patent quality.

For the thirteenth consecutive year, IBM was awarded the most patents--more than 2,900--by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to the company.

IBM is also expected to detail three multiparty efforts to increase review of patent applications, in part by tapping open-source developers and collaborative software. Partners include the Patent Office and the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), an industry consortium that launched a "patent commons" for open-source communities in November 2005.

The U.S. patent system and the quality of patents are increasingly high-profile issues in the technology industry. Patents have been the source of several lawsuits and a number of intellectual property licensing firms have emerged.

Although the contents of patent applications are public record and available to anyone, IBM has worked with the Patent Office to develop the Open Patent Review, a program to allow people, including academics and corporate technologists, to easily view the contents of filed patents and provide feedback to patent examiners.

The system will be designed so people can sign up to receive e-mail or RSS alerts about patent applications filed with certain criteria, according to Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source. IBM is also sponsoring a Community Patent Web site.

In another effort, the OSDL is hosting a Web site called the Open Source Software as Prior Art project, which will be designed as a way to search through existing open-source code. IBM, Novell, Red Hat and VA Software's SourceForge.net are participating.

Sutor said he expects that open-source developers will search the prior art system to find existing software and create a "tagging" mechanism for labeling and categorizing code.

In a statement, the Patent Office said it intends to work more closely with open-source communities.

"Collaboration between the Patent Office and the open-source community builds on the momentum of the open-source model," said John Doll, Commissioner for Patents at the Patent Office. "There is powerful logic in tapping vast public resources to address the growing public interest in patent quality."

IBM's Sutor said that growing interest in the patent system and emerging collaborative technologies make more rigorous reviews "extremely feasible."

"There's a lot of practical interest and a lot of academic interest in the patent system," Sutor said. "And I think the community is going to be extremely motivated to do (reviews)."

The third initiative, the Patent Quality Index, calls for a system to rank the quality of the patent application. IBM is supporting the work of University of Pennsylvania Professor R. Polk Wagner, who will direct the effort.

The Patent Office is encouraging participation in all three initiatives and will hold a public meeting at its offices Feb. 16.

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