Patent Office considers Wiki peer review

A pilot peer review scheme using Wiki technology is under consideration by the UK Patent Office, since it was recommended in last week's Gowers review
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The UK Patent Office is considering reforms to the patent system based on recommendations made in last week's Gowers Review.

After being contacted by ZDNet UK on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the patent office confirmed it was considering measures laid down in the review. She said that the Patent Office was "looking at an implementation plan" for Gowers' recommendations.

"Our position is looking at the report [the Gowers Review] and in the new year we'll set up a team to implement recommendations. We're looking at setting up an implementation plan, but we don't have a time frame yet for when that plan will be available — it's early doors for that, as you know the review was only made public last week."

The Gowers Review, a treasury-funded report into UK intellectual property issues, was released last Wednesday.

The review's author, Andrew Gowers, made various recommendations concerning patents, including how to improve the number and quality of patents that are processed.

Concerns have been expressed in recent years that patent examiners don't have the time and resources to thoroughly assess all applications, but measures laid out in the Gowers review could remedy this issue.

Recommendation 23 of Gowers states: "The Patent Office should conduct a pilot of Beth Noveck's Community Patent Review in 2007 in the UK to determine whether this would have a positive impact on the quality of the patent stock."

Professor Beth Noveck, director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at the New York Law School, recommended a system of peer review for patents in the US in a September 2006 paper entitled "Community Patent Review Project Summary".

In the paper, Novek proposed that inventors seeking a patent should submit an application first to a community of interested expert reviewers, to ease pressure on patent examiners.

The Gowers Review recommended that Wiki technology, as used in Wikipedia, could be used as part of the peer process to build a knowledge base of comments on the application's suitability. Previous inventions — prior art — are also taken into account, before the application is submitted to patent examiners. The use of a Wiki, which can be edited by multiple experts, allows links to prior art to be updated.

That the pilot peer review scheme is one of the Gowers recommendations under consideration was cautiously welcomed by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), a pressure group that campaigns against software patents.

"It's a commendable idea, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. We have an ongoing project called Gauss which is similar, so obviously we welcome this kind of idea," said Rufus Pollock, director of FFII UK.

However, FFII UK has concerns about the viability of such a project. FFII rejects the claim that there is any need for European software patents, and argued that while Novek's scheme may work in the US, which has a different patent scheme, it may not work in Europe.

"Novek's idea comes from the States, where they have software patents. Why grant a pilot scheme for community review of software patents when software shouldn't be patented?" said Pollock.

Pollock also said FFII was concerned that it may be difficult to find the requisite number of patent experts willing to work for free.

"It's a question of incentives. It's pretty dull looking at software patents — the mix of legal and technical jargon makes for really dull labour. You normally have to pay patent examiners — I don't know where the motivation would come from for peer review," said Pollock.

A pilot scheme for the Community Project is to be run by the US Patent Office in spring 2007, according to the Community Patent Review blog. Participants include Computer Associates, GE, HP, IBM, Microsoft and Red Hat, who have all agreed to submit some of their patents for public review.

The UK Patent Office cautiously welcomed the recommendations of the Gowers Review. Ron Marchant, chief executive and comptroller general of the UK Patent office, said: "The Patent Office joins others in welcoming the Report and I look forward to the Patent Office playing a full role in implementing the recommendations for which it is responsible."

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