Wednesday 1 June 2011

Peer to Patent (UK) launched

The UK's Intellectual Property Office has launched a website that allows members of the public to supply prior art (and comment on) for pending patent applications. Peer to Patent is an idea that was piloted in the United States (with a second pilot ongoing). A pilot in Australia also ran for a six month pilot from December 2009. I do not know what plans there are for continuing it. The "prior art" or, strictly speaking, the "state of the art" is a central concept in patent law. In the UK, section 2 of the Patents Act 1977 ("novelty") explains that an invention is only "new" (and therefore patentable) if it is not already part of the state of the art. Section 3 ("inventive step") relies on the state of the art (or at least part of it) in defining whether or not a patent contains an inventive step (again without which it will not be patentable). The problem that peer-to-patent seems to be trying to solve is to give patent examiners access to that prior art. There is no "prior art" database that an examiner can simply search. They can try looking at past patents which certainly contain a great deal of prior art, but an invention may not have been patented — particularly in an area of industry which is new or in which patents were not traditionally sought. Computer software patents are a prime example of this. In Australia one patent examiner commented:
I would say that the [Peer-to-Patent Australia prior art] documents were of greater relevance than those found during the initial search. I think they were somewhat helpful for this particular application, in which the claims were drafted using broad terminology, which was difficult to search.
So, patent examiners do appear to be finding it useful. An earlier blog post by the IPKAT on the subject attracted some negative comments. They seem overly cynical to me. The US and Australian experiences do seem to suggest that patent examiners like it and that more prior art is being exposed at an earlier stage which must be a good thing. Now, I am sceptical that the patent system (either in the UK or the world) does what it is supposed to do. For example, the very high cost of bringing or defending patent proceedings means that practice and theory diverge considerably. There are numerous other criticisms that one might reasonably levy. But, sceptic or not, I welcome anything that tries to make the system better, even if its very modest indeed. I would encourage anyone with specialist knowledge of the patents on offer to engage. Of course, really they need a badge system. Maybe it will come.

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