Program launched to improve patent quality

IBM, open-source to play big roles

In a step toward reforming the U.S. patent system, IBM, the Open Source Development Lab and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are leading an initiative to speed up the patent approval process and improve the quality of patents.

The announcement follows many cases of high-profile and long-running patent disputes often involving software innovations.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the three-part initiative is a program to establish open-source software as prior art. Prior art refers to existing inventions that can prevent a new patent from being awarded. The OSDL, IBM, Novell Inc., Red Hat Inc. and VA Software’s are developing a searchable database of open-source code so that patent examiners and the public can search for prior art from the open-source community when considering a patent application. Such a storage system would satisfy legal requirements for the code to qualify as prior art, IBM said. Another part of the initiative will allow users of the patent office Web site to search for patent information and receive e-mails regarding newly published patent applications. The program will also encourage the public to review patent applications and offer feedback to the patent office regarding prior art.

The final leg of the program is a patent quality index. The index will assign a number to patent applications and patents indicating the quality of the patent. Members of the public could use the indexing system to evaluate the quality of proposed patents, patent holders could use it to identify weaknesses in their own patents, and companies could use the index to evaluate competitive patents relevant to a field they may be working in.

The patent office has scheduled a public meeting to discuss the projects at its Alexandria, Va., offices on Feb. 16.

In addition, the patent office last week proposed additional policy changes that it hopes will reduce the time it takes to review patents and to improve the quality of patents that are granted. The new rules include changes in the way inventors make patent applications and subsequent filings.

Today’s initiative coincides with the annual release by the patent office of a list of the companies with the most patents in 2005. For the 13th consecutive year, IBM received the most U.S. patents, with 2,941. Canon Kabushiki Kaisha was ranked second with 1,828, and Hewlett-Packard Co. was third with 1,797.

The patent reform programs come after a program launched in November by the OSDL to create a central and open repository of information regarding pledges made by companies that patents they hold won’t threaten the development or use of open-source software. The goal is to boost the image of open-source projects as free from the threat of potential patent litigation.


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