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Thursday Mar 13, 2014

Calling on the Crowd to Help Increase Patent Quality

Blog by Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO Michelle K. Lee

Protecting and promoting our ideas-driven economy is essential to economic growth. By issuing patents for novel and non-obvious inventions, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) plays a critical role in ensuring that America’s intellectual property system continues to be a catalyst for American companies and entrepreneurs to innovate.

The White House and the General Services Administration recently announced the next round of the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program. As part of this effort, USPTO is seeking a fellow to help in carrying out the agency’s goal of “Using the Crowd to Improve Patent Quality,” specifically by ensuring that patent examiners have the best prior art before them during examination.

To determine whether an invention is patentable, a patent examiner must evaluate it in light of the state-of-the-art. But innovation moves fast and important advances may be documented only in hard-to-access corporate records or any number of other far-flung repositories. Finding, among a sea of documents, the most relevant ones, especially in areas where terms are non-standardized, can be difficult. The PIF program, which pairs top innovators from the civil sector with top innovators in the government to collaborate during focused 6-13 month “tours of duty,” will help overcome these challenges.

Applications will be accepted through April 7, 2014, and can be found here. We encourage interested members of the public to apply.

The PIF project is just the latest chapter in the Obama administration’s long-standing partnership with the community on patent issues. For example, the USPTO’s Software Patent Partnership recently completed a roundtable on prior art issues for which public comments are being solicited. The agency is also planning a roundtable on crowdsourcing for April 10, 2014, in Alexandria, Virginia, at which it intends to solicit feedback about innovative ways to leverage crowdsourcing techniques to help acquire difficult-to-locate prior art. The roundtable will also explore the range of crowdsourcing resources available for examiners to use, as well as bring together subject matter experts to discuss ways for examiners to access this material, such as by building a database of hard-to-find prior art.

These efforts build on three new executive actions the administration announced on February 20th at the White House. In that announcement, the USPTO committed to refining the current third party submission process and exploring other ways that the public can provide potential prior art to the agency. The agency also committed to updating its guidance and training of examiners for using crowd-sourced prior art, particularly non-patent literature (NPL). The USPTO further committed to building upon its existing “Patent Examiner Technical Training Program” to make it easier for technologists and engineers from industry and academia to provide technical training and expertise to patent examiners, as well as appointing a full-time pro bono coordinator to ensure broad access to the patent system.

Further, we are pleased to see a growing number of organizations from a wide range of industries who have already expressed a willingness to help advance the shared goals of these three new executive actions. While the list of public support is growing every day, some examples of those pledges to date include:

Cisco – which has committed to assembling its public product documentation, electronically publishing many invention submissions that are not internally approved to be patent filings, and continuing to provide examiners access to senior Cisco technical talent in the form of training;

The Clearing House – an industry association comprised of over 20 of the nation’s leading banks, which has committed to developing educational materials and hosting education sessions with patent examiners, as well as providing the USPTO with access to non-patent materials describing the national financial infrastructure;

IBM - which has committed to continue sharing prior art and providing technical training to patent examiners, as it has for decades;

Microsoft – which has committed to providing USPTO examiners a free, searchable database aimed at giving access to more than 10 million archived Microsoft technical corporate documents;

Rackspace – which has committed to sharing with the USPTO complete technical information about all of its prior products, including documents that were previously considered confidential, and to provide ongoing information to the USPTO detailing each product that it develops and releases;

SAS – which has committed to making 38 years of user documentation and technical papers available to the public and USPTO through publication at;

Verizon – which has committed to updating examiners on the state-of-the-art developments in communications technology, including on network architecture and media delivery;

Yahoo! – which has committed to sharing prior art relevant to their business and publishing technological developments it does not pursue as patents to aid examination and encourage innovation.

In addition to these, a growing number of organizations are offering their public support for these three new executive actions and pledging to engage with the administration to develop their own unique methods of leveraging the crowd to advance these efforts. Some of those include: the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA); Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO); BSA | The Software Alliance (BSA); Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform (21C); Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO); and Qualcomm.

We applaud the leaders in the private sector who are already answering the administration’s call with these efforts and we encourage others to join them, as we continue to explore the power of the crowd to further strengthen our patent system and foster American innovation.


Crowdsourcing may provide innovative solutions to many problems but what may be some of the unintended consequences of allowing outside influences to enter into the patent approval process? Large corporations have already gained an increased advantage with recent changes to allow for post patent challenges. What will be the impact on independent inventors when large corporations might hire dozens of experts and likely former patent examiners to negatively influence patent applications for all manner of patents that might threaten their existing businesses?

Posted by Chris Lee on March 13, 2014 at 11:59 AM EDT #

I remain concerned about the proliferation of otherwise not available documents (e.g., the 'disclosures' of corporations that are not deemed worthy for patent protection) that companies are now more than willing to 'share' as prior art.

Posted by Wendy Koba on March 14, 2014 at 05:58 AM EDT #

To be useful to the system in general, these corporate provided databases need to be available to the public. And, of course, something can't be prior art unless it is considered "published".

Posted by George White on April 23, 2014 at 12:43 PM EDT #

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