Friday, March 09, 2007

This spring, the Patent and Trademark Office is launching a new initiative that has been hailed as "revolutionary." Under a pilot project, patent examiners at the PTO are beginning to use a web-based system to access information about applications, information that would have been beyond their fingertips under traditional review methods. Rather than rely primarily on scientific writings and archival patent records, the new system is oriented around the idea of community peer review. In this regard, the system resembles Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It also incorporates features from eBay and, most notably a rating system that allows users to evaluate one another's contributions.

The idea here is to use digital technology to enhance, from the bottom up, the expertise of the patent review process and to make the process more accountable and transparent to the outside public. It is a far cry from the traditional, paper-based process, where patent examiners have sometimes been prohibited from even using the Internet, lest they inadvertantly reveal proprietary secrets during the course of their online searches.

If you are wondering why a government agency would open itself up to the outside world in this way, here are some pretty telling statistics. Last year, 4,000 examiners handled a record 332,000 patent applications. The PTO's ability to conduct thorough reviews is understandably rather limited under these circumstances. What, then, does the agency have to lose?

Although I am intrigued by this marriage of government, politics, and technology, I wonder just what a difference the new system will ultimately make. Here's a guess. Every now and then, an application will come along where the PTO faces a significant information deficit and the relevant experts clamber to weigh in collaboratively on the key issues, thereby producing a better process and outcome. In most instances, however, the examiners will do just fine on their own and the community peer review system will add little of value. This is not to say, of course, that such a result would be a bad thing. If information technology can help government agencies solve some of their hardest problems, then it is serving a very useful purpose. From my point of view, we need more of this kind of potentially transformational project, so long as it goes hand-in-hand with careful empirical scrutiny of actual patterns of behavior. That way, we can embrace the innovations that appear to work over time and across contexts, and jettison those that are long on promise and short on results. Stay will take many, many years to figure all of this out...



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