THE US PATENT OFFICE DISCOVERS THE INTERNET…Some would argue there are sexier topics, but the news that the US patent office is finally entering the internet age by posting patent applications online, and inviting comments from experts around the world, deserves attention. Giving examiners access to the range of technical expertise that exists online, rather than making them reliant only on those innovations that the patent office happens to have catalogued over the years, could revolutionize the application process, and therefore, the state of American innovation.

The Washington Post goes into great detail about what seems like one of the least important aspects of the new system: its ability to prioritize the comments of true experts. But the paper does a poor job explaining the likely effect of the decision to go online. Right now, the office issues way too many patents. One reason for this (among several) is that examiners don’t have access to the right search information. Now, with a whole new source of data, examiners will be more likely to find “prior art”–examples of existing technology related to the suppposedly “new” invention for which the applicant is requesting a patent. That means they’re likely to reject more applications, and the ones they approve will be more limited in scope. The effect could be to begin to clear the “patent thickets” that currently stifle innovation in areas like software and biotech, as we explained in this Washington Monthly story. Ultimately, this is the reason for the new system, though, understandably, it’s not one that the USPTO is eager to go into.

What’s particularly interesting is that major patent applicants, like IBM and Microsoft, were behind the push for the new system. That’s likely because they’re feeling increasingly threatened by “patent trolls”–smaller companies that make money by patenting their “inventions” (which are often of dubious originality) without ever intending to bring a product to market, then shaking down large tech companies for licensing feees. IBM et al. may also be concerned that the current system makes it virtually impossible to know how much their own patents are really worth–since many fail to hold up when challenged in court.

It’s not clear (to me at least) how much the new system, which is only in a pilot stage, will do to improve the process. But it seems like a very preliminary step in the right direction.