The patent dramas of the last couple of years have included fights between the very biggest tech titans — Oracle v. Google; Samsung v. Apple; etc. — those picking on the little guys — remember patent troll Lodsys suing all those iOS developers? — and everything in between (here’s one just from today), with a lot of hand-wringing over how destructive the whole patent industry is. Now Stack Exchange, which runs a bunch of developer-focused sites, is getting into the game: today it announced the launch of AskPatents.com, a new site it hopes will be the basis of a community effort to help fight down some of the more bogus patent applications being made today. And it’s partnering with no less than the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to run it.
The focus of the site will be a crowdsourced effort to find prior art related to patents that might prove them invalid. The idea is that when a patent application comes up for approval, or perhaps is used in a suit, it can be posted on AskPatents.com. (Because patents’ validity is often based on whether they really are covering something that has not been done before, an assertion of prior art can often be used in defense of one, or to invalidate the patent’s claims in the case of an application.)
As Stack Exchange’s CEO Joel Spolsky notes, prior art “could be another patent, something in a publication, or even an implementation, like a shareware software program from 1992 that does the same thing that somebody is now claiming to have invented in 2008. It can be published anywhere in the world, in any language, in any publication, no matter how obscure, to qualify as prior art.” Users can contribute these documents and, as with Stack Exchange’s other sites, can vote contributions up or down.
The problem with the patent application process, he notes, is that finding prior art can be time-consuming, and so due diligence can often fall by the wayside. The implication is that this has happened at the USTPO to some extent. AskPatents will try to help counterbalance that with a lot of people contributing to the effort.
The effort was borne out of two developments: the first is the America Invents Act came into effect on September 16 and lets ordinary people provide feedback on patent applications; and the other is the fact that the USTPO actually reached out to Stack Exchange to develop the site.
“Our hope is that Ask Patents will reduce the number of patents mistakenly granted for obvious, unoriginal non-inventions, especially around software, a field that is near and dear to us,” writes Spolsky. He notes that Stack Exchange will be working with the Peer To Patent project at New York Law School, which has already played a role identifying prior art that the USPTO wouldn’t otherwise have known about.
And because fees for legal help around patents can often be exorbitant, perhaps the most exciting part of all of this is that the service is free of charge. “It will be totally free for the community to use (like all of our sites),” notes Stack Exchange’s Alex Miller. “Our focus with Ask Patents (and our mission as a company) is simply building the greatest network of highly engaged experts in a variety of topics.”
He also notes that it will also be a chance for Stack Exchange to widen its reach: “Ask Patents is one more big step down that road as it helps open us up to whole new areas of professionals who haven’t been on Stack Exchange yet.”