May 8, 2001

PriorArt.org launches database to protect against patents

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Open Source programmers have a new way to protect their creations against someone else patenting and collecting royalties them, with the launch today of PriorArt.org.

The Foresight Institute, a nanotechnology think tank, and IP.com, a "defensive" intellectual property database, announced the launch of a new service aimed at Open Source developers who want to keep other people's grubby patents off their work.

Basically, what PriorArt.org does is provides a place for programmers to publish their work where patent examiners can look when they're researching patent claims -- without the programmers having to get patents themselves. The site belongs to the Open Source-focused Foresight Institute, but is powered by IP.com's searchable database that serves as an independent verification of a new creation.

The idea, covered earlier this spring at Salon.com, has racked up endorsements from Open Source advocates such as Eric S. Raymond and Brian Behlendorf, leader of the Apache Project.

Many in the Open Source community argue that the number of patents granted is out of control, with companies getting patents for software that's been available in the community for months or years. Thomas Colson, president and CEO of IP.com, says the company was formed a year ago to help overworked patent office examiners worldwide find that "prior art."

Colson says there were about 180,000 patent applications in the United States in 1993, and the number ballooned to 290,000 in 1999. This year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office could see 350,000 patent applications.

"A lot of people out there feel that the patent system we have today isn't working as it was originally intended," says Colson, a patent lawyer. "With the patent race as feverish as it is right now, it looks like more and more patents are going to be issued that shouldn've have been issued in the first place."

Colson says it makes sense for his intellectual property protecting service to partner with the Open Source community on this issue. He believes most Open Source people who complain about patents really are complaining about flaws within the patent process.

"Fundamentally, if someone says, 'I hate patents; patents stifle innovation,' I think what they're really saying is, 'There's many, many things that should have never become patents,' and that's what's stifling innovation," he says. "The Open Source community, I think, they're concern is, 'Hey, they're tired of seeing these overly broad patents issuing.' Some of the extremists would say, 'Let's shut down the patent system,' but I think the pendulum would swing in the complete opposite direction, and you'd have an equal number of problems."

He added: "If I'm going to invest $100 million in development of a brand new earth-shattering technology and there are no patents available, then anybody out there in the markeplace could copy me and immediately have a $100 million head start over me in the markeplace. I think everyone would agree that in that event, where someone has truly come up with something new and useful and non-obvious and made an investment to do that, then they should be given some [patent] protection."

What PriorArt.org and IP.com's services do is "publish" developers' ideas so that there's a record of an idea beyond Internet "folklore" when someone else tries to patent it. After an idea is published, that document can't be changed; so IP.com can independently verifty the publication and the author hasn't added material when someone else files a similar patent.

The service at PriorArt.org will be free to Open Source inventors. The non-profit Foresight Institute plans to buy "disclosure vouchers' in bulk from IP.com, according to today's press release. IP.com will sell those vouchers to Foresight for $20 each, instead of the regular $109 price IP.com charges for larger commercial disclosures. IP.com also offers a $19.95 "OpenTech Database," but it's limited to 25 Kbs and text-only files, and the minimum document life is five years.

Colson's ultimate goal, he says, is to "finally put an end to these patents that are stifiling innovation. The other side of that coin is allowing only those patents that are truly new, useful, unobvious and are really pioneering."

Foresight's president, Christine L. Peterson, was unavailable for comment today, but PriorArt.org's FAQ answers several potential questions about the service. The institute may have a slightly different take on patents than Colson.

From the FAQ:

Q: Are you people communists?
A: No. If you have a patentable invention, and you want to spend many hours and
thousands of dollars to obtain and defend the patent, go right ahead. But if you don't
want to patent your invention... you just want to use it, and you're afraid someone else
might patent it and keep you from using it... then you may want to publish it here.

Q: Do you want to destroy the patent system?
A: Many people believe that the patent system is great in theory. In practice, it has some
serious problems, allowing patents that were obvious or that were already in the prior art. We are working to reduce this problem by bringing certain inventions to the attention of the patent examiners.

Q: But this doesn't solve the problem of ...
A: We know. We're not trying to solve all the problems at once. All we intend to do, for now, is to reduce the impact of one particular problem. Patent examiners can't possibly find all of the existing prior art that affects a patent application. We want to make it easier for them to find some of it.

For more information, check out today's press release about PriorArt.org.

Click Here!