This article from The Economist provides an excellent overview of the U.S. Patent Office’s “Peer to Patent” program, which aims to open the examination of patent applications to the public.

The USPTO’s pilot scheme will scrutinize 250 patent applications in a handful of computer-related fields, with the approval of the applicants.  The first examples have been submitted by IBM, Intel, Microsoft and other technology giants.  The text of each application is posted in full for public scrutiny, and members of the public can sign up to participate in the review process.  They can discuss each application in an online forum, suggest examples of prior art, and vote for the prior art they consider most relevant.  Messages that are considered off-topic can be flagged, and there are plans to allow participants to rate each other, so that the most highly regarded participants’ recommendations rise to the top of the pile.