The possibilities (beyond merely sharing the latest embarrassing YouTube video or cat-based humour) inherent in today’s social networking technology are just beginning to be explored. A group of researchers in Pennsylvania suggests one possible use is to help deal with the enormous backlog in patent applications (a backlog that directly impacts how quickly new technology makes its way into society) by helping to identify what’s known as “prior art” (which, as Wikipedia–which seems a particular apt source for this item*–explains, “constitutes all information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality. If an invention has been described in prior art, a patent on that invention is not valid.”). (Via Science Blog.)
“The burgeoning backlog of patent applications at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), several hundred thousand in any year, has created an urgent need for Office reform,” the team explains, “Review of related application reference material, or prior art, is a necessary but time-consuming step in the patent process.” If prior art can be identified early in the assessment process then a patent claim can be discarded quickly and the patent examiner move on to the next claim.
Peo and colleagues explain how the USPTO initiated a pilot project that uses social networking software to allow groups of volunteer review experts to upload prior art references, participate in discussion forums, rate other user submissions and add research references to pending applications. The aim was to allow the actual patent examiners to focus on reviewing the most relevant prior art associated with any particular submission and so streamline the overall application process.
The pilot project, Peer to Patent, has proven successful enough (here’s its one-year report) that similar approaches are being investigated by the UK Intellectual Property Office and the European Patent Office.
*Particularly apt because there’s an unofficial patent review site called Wikipatents.
(Image: Drawing from Canadian patent awarded to my grandfather-in-law)