IBM leads plan to streamline patents

In a step toward reforming the U.S. patent system, IBM Corp., Open Source Development Labs Inc. and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are leading an initiative to speed up the patent approval process and improve the quality of patents. The announcement Tuesday follows countless 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. 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 general 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 anyone who visits the USPTO Web site to search for patent information and receive emails regarding newly published patent applications. The program will also encourage the public to review patent applications and offer feedback to the USPTO 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 can use the indexing system to evaluate the quality of proposed patents, patent holders can use it to identify weaknesses in their own patents, and companies can use the index to evaluate competitive patents relevant to a field they may be working in.

The USPTO has planned a public meeting to discuss the projects at its offices on Feb. 16.

In addition, the USPTO last week proposed additional policy changes that it hopes will reduce the time it takes for it to review patents and 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 USPTO of the companies with the most patents. For the thirteenth consecutive year, IBM received more U.S. patents, at 2,941, than any other company. Hewlett-Packard Co. said it was third with 1,797 U.S. patents.

The patent reform programs follow an initiative launched in November by 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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