Yesterday I spent part of the afternoon at a US Patent & Trademark Office roundtable discussion on using crowdsourcing to improve the patent examination process. Thanks to Chris Wong for looping me in and helping to organize the event. If you’re interested, you can watch the whole video here.
I was there not as an expert in patents, but as someone who represents lots of small startup internet companies facing patent issues, and as someone who spends a lot of time on the problem of how to solve challenges through collaborative processes (basically everything USV invests in).
Here are my slides:
And I’ll just highlight two important points:
First: why do we care about this? Because (generally speaking) small internet companies typically see more harm than benefit from the patent system:
And second, there are many ways to contemplate “crowdsourcing” with regard to patent examinations.
In the most straightforward sense, the PTO could construct a way for outsiders to submit prior art on pending patent applications — this is the model pioneered by Peer to Patent, and built upon by Stack Exchange’s Ask Patents community.
The challenge with this approach is that while structured crowdsourcing around complex problems is proven to work, it’s really hard to get right. A big risk facing the PTO is investing a lot in a web interface for this, in a “big bang” sort of way (a la healthcare.gov), not getting it right, and then seeing the whole thing as a failure.
To that end, I posed the ideas that getting “crowdsourcing” right is really a cultural issue, not a technical issue. In other words, making it work is not just about building the right website and hoping people will come. Getting it right will mean changing the way you connect with and engage with “the crowd”. As Micah Siegel from Ask Patents put it, “you can’t do crowdsourcing without a crowd”.
We also talked about the importance of APIs and open data in all of this, so that people can build applications (simple ones, like notifications or tweets, or complex ones involving workflow) around the exam process.
Tying those three ideas together (changing culture, going where “the crowd” already is, and taking an API-first approach), it seems like there is a super clear path to getting started:
- Set up a simple, public “uspto-developers” google group and invite interested developers to join the discussion there.
- Stand up a basic API for patent search that sites like Ask Patents and others could use (they specifically asked for this, and already have an active community).
That would be a really simple way to start, would be guaranteed to bear fruit in the near term, and would also help guide subsequent steps
Or, to put it in more buzzwordy terms:
It felt like a productive discussion — I appreciate how hard it is to approach an old problem in a new way, and get the sense that the PTO is taking a real stab at it.