On August 21, 2006, the USPTO released for public comment a proposed five-year strategic program. The proposed five-year program seeks to achieve several goals: optimize patent and trademark quality and timeliness, and improve foreign and domestic IP protection. One initiative presented under the patent quality and timeliness prong seeks to create a pilot program for streamlining the USPTO’s patent review and approval process. Specifically, under the subheading “Strategy: Improve and enhance examination efficiency and effectiveness” the five-year program seeks to create “a peer review mechanism in which public sector volunteer experts will review published applications and provide prior art.” Thus the USPTO has proposed the launch of a pilot project to improve the efficiency and quality of its patent review process by supplementation with public peer to peer review. How did the USPTO get to this point?

Over the past twenty years the number of patent applications filed with the USPTO has tripled. However, the number of examiners reviewing the mounting number of patent applications has not seen a concomitant increase. Critics say that this trebling of workload has overwhelmed patent examiners and – in turn – led to an ever-increasing number of invalid patents being allowed. The argument is that patent examiners do not have time to properly scrutinize the increased number of applications. 

Last July, professor Beth Noveck of New York Law School proposed that the patent review process could be improved by creating a public forum for the review of patent applications and collaborative generation of information that can further inform patent examiners.  Noveck suggested that using a wiki format could theoretically supplement the patent review process with the technological expertise of the entire world, thereby vastly increasing the information available to patent examiners. When IBM, Microsoft and others learned of Noveck’s wiki-based concept to improve the process, they stepped up to help fund a pilot program. The USPTO also became interested in Noveck’s idea of wiki application review, ironically, shortly after it removed Wikipedia from the USPTO’s accepted sources of information list.

Noveck has worked with both IBM and the USPTO to develop a pilot system that will allow approved members of the public to review published patent applications. Further, to try and filter out tampering by competitors, bogus entries, etc., the pilot system will allow participants to view and comment on peer reviewers’ postings similar to ranking sellers on eBay. The goal being that patent examiners be shown only the ten best rated comments according to public sector “expert” reviewers.

Noveck is confident that a wiki systems is an obvious potential cure for the USPTO’s ailing patent application review process and predicts that the pilot program could be approved and launched in early 2007.

Time will tell.