How crowdsourcing can help vet patent applications

In its battle to improve the patent review process, the U.S Patent and Trademark Office has deployed a crowdsourcing site that lets the general public comment on the validity of patent applications, especially the aspect of "prior art," a term describing information that might be relevant to an application's claims of originality.

The new Ask Patents site, according to USPTO, encourages public subject-matter experts to take advantage of a new rule in the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act of 2011 that allows third parties to submit relevant materials to patent examiners in any given examination. Submission of proposed prior art helps examiners determine whether the innovation in the application is patentable.

The new provision, 35 U.S.C. 122(e), was implemented by USPTO on Sept. 16, and applies to any pending application, the agency said.

The Ask Patents social media site is collaborative effort, supported by Stack Exchange, USPTO and the Google Patent Search team. Volunteer subject-matter experts can suggest prior art for given applications, as well as offer their input on the proposed value of those suggestions from others. Until the debut of Ask Patents, third parties could not submit prior art or offer input into the patent process.


The weaponization of patents

The site was inspired by Peer to Patent, a pilot project launched by New York Law School that used a volunteer peer review process to evaluate patents. In that first pilot, citizen-experts reviewed 189 applications and produced 602 references to prior art (of which 316 were non-patent literature).

The pilot project's report, Peer to Peer First Pilot Final Results, concluded that "those applications that matured to issuance were more thoroughly vetted and, thus, stronger than many of their counterparts which did not participate in this public review."

USPTO says the use of third-party review will not only improve the patent examination process, but will also "advance the administration’s ongoing commitment to transparency and open government,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO David Kappos.

Stack Exchange, the company responsible for the Ask Patents platform, says it is "building a crowdsourced worldwide detective agency to track down and obliterate bogus patent applications."

Stack Exchange was started with a single site, Stack Overflow, in 2008 by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky. The Stack Overflow question-and-answer site has brought together millions of computer programmers to help each other with detailed technical questions, the company said. The Stack Exchange network now includes 89 Q&A sites on topics including Ubuntu, code review, user experience and Raspberry Pi.

For Ask Patents, volunteers and other interested parties will be able to ask about applications that they think are suspicious, the company said in a blog. Community members can ask for or cite prior art for a specific claim, they can ask questions about the patent law or patent approval process, or question how to interpret a specific patent.

Other community members can answer, identifying possible prior art, and using an upvote/downvote feature to rate any examples of prior art that other people found, according to Stack Exchange.

USPTO's efforts to improve the patent review process have been well-documented through the years. It has wrestled with too many patent applications, too few examiners and a library too big to effectively search. Meanwhile, industry has been turning up the heat by filing patent applications on business processes and acquiring intellectual property to stock a patent war chest, leaving many small companies settling or selling intellectual property to avoid lengthy court battles.

And USPTO has adapted to meet the changing patent environment with a variety of solutions.

In 2007, USPTO built EFS-Web, a Web-based patent filing system, replacing the downloadable software it had been using and switched to a Web-based portal. Users no longer had to translate applications into XML format but could simply attach a PDF file.

In June 2010, USPTO struck a deal with Google to put 7 million patents online. Some of its data wasn’t in machine-readable formats, however, and the agency didn’t have the money to fix the problem. Google converted the patent agency's image database into a searchable format, allowing both full-text searches and advanced searches by criteria such as an inventor’s name or a patent number.

In 2011, USPTO offered $50,000 in prizes in a month-long competition to develop algorithms that could help patent examiners pull together digital data from hundreds of pages of applications. The algorithms would reduce the amount of time patent examiners spend paging through applications looking for data to match with drawings and other images, helping to speed up the application process and make it more cost-effective. It also could make patent information more accessible to the public.

A second challenge, PatentLabeling2, was issued in March 2012 and would build upon the winning solutions from the previous round of competition by developing algorithms which can automatically identify and locate specific elements within millions of patent documents.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected