Bringing More to the Patent Discussion


Innovators may have the opportunity to work more closely with patent regulators as they expand their operations to the West coast. On behalf of Engine, I headed to Stanford University on Tuesday to speak alongside individuals from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, App Developers Alliance, and CodeX as well as two independent developers about the need for greater innovation in the patent regime.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office kicked off its “Software Partnership Roundtable” series seeking input on how to better handle overbroad software patents. Many of us highlighted the opportunity to use new technology to help patent examiners avoid issuing overbroad or unclear patents.

These problem patents are largely to blame for the increase in suits filed by non-practicing entities, often referred to as “patent trolls.” New research from Santa Clara University professor Colleen Chien shows that 82 percent of those facing patent troll suits have been sued on the basis of a software patent. The PTO sought input specifically on overbroad software patents making functional claims that may encompass any number of technologies. Think of Lodsys’ alleged patent on in-app purchases or the disputed “pull to refresh” patents.

Entrepreneurs, investors, and software developers are growing increasingly wary of the patent system both because of potential litigation and due to limited resources to file for and license patents. In a startup’s first year, the company will likely run on little more than the savings of the founders, a few credit cards, and the company’s ideas and innovations. Angel and seed-stage investment don’t provide much financial breathing room, making the fees and time associated with filing for a patent a luxury at best.

Trust in the patent system has eroded. Companies and organizations including Twitter are creating defensive patent systems to help innovators avoid the negative externalities associated with patent litigation. The relationship between developers and the patent system is not so much broken as it is nonexistent in many cases. As two Washington University economists noted in a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article, engineers are actively told by companies to not “search, view, or speculate” on patents. As one Microsoft engineer testified, “Ignorance is bliss and strongly recommended when it comes to patents.” Big companies often encourage their engineers to avoid patents in an effort to minimize damages should they be found to have infringed an existing patent.

One potential opportunity I dicussed was drawn from Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler’s book The Wealth of Networks. In 2002, another resource-constrained government agency -- NASA -- successfully launched a clickworkers project to map the surface of Mars. After 6 months and over 1.9 million entries, the survey work was almost indistinguishable from that of a professional geographer. It’s not a perfect case study, but an example of how technology has been used to bring the insight of ordinary citizens into problem solving at a massively complex level.

Communities ranging from Quora to Wikipedia have demonstrated the internet’s capacity to harness collective intelligence, cut through the noise, and provide reasonable guidance on any number of issues. Civic startup groups like Code for America are also demonstrating what a teams of engineers with access to government data can contribute to benefit citizens and businesses around the country. I don’t know if these models would necessarily work for the patent office, but I think the idea warrants discussion, especially as the demand for more rigorous patent review increases.

The confusion created by overbroad patents comes as platforms like GitHub make it easier and easier for software developers to engage in a flexible, responsive, and accessible way. The patent system was built around similar principles, but has become a confusing thicket for most people. To make this partnership successful, the patent office needs to mend the break with innovators while increasing transparency, rigor, and accessibility. I think the startup community can help and Engine will continue to look for opportunities to contribute.

Picture courtesy of Alan Kotok.