Patently Ridiculous

19 Sep 2005 | News
Barry Fox thinks that the patent system is deliberately designed to make it hard to find out anything.

Barry Fox thinks that the patent system is deliberately designed to make it hard to find out anything.

Until recently there was always something rather Dickensian about looking for a patent. It involved finger-flipping through card files, leafing through dog-eared index books and then speed-reading through piles of paper. Only skilled experts could find what they were looking for.

Now, in the IT age, Patent Offices round the world are giving up on paper. They are putting electronic copies of patents on the Internet, and providing search engines, which the general public can use with ease. At least, that is the theory. In practice anyone trying their own patent search would be excused for thinking that the government Patent Offices, in Europe and the USA, have deliberately made access difficult, to guarantee continued work for professional searchers who have mastered the systems' mysteries - and that suspicion is not far from the truth.

The system should be straightforward. Once a company's lawyers have filed for a patent, full details of that idea are put on a conveyer belt for automatic publication, usually after 18 months. The details are posted on the Internet, with a unique identifying number. Armed with that number, anyone in the world should be able to find the patent and download a free copy, read whatever it reveals and tell whoever they like.

All about patents

This is necessary because a patent is a bargain struck between the inventor and state. The state gives the inventor a limited-life monopoly and the right to earn royalties, usually for 20 years, but in return the inventor must release full technical details for publication. The object of publication is to let third parties read what the inventor claims to be new, and either lodge a legal objection or steer clear of making infringing copies. The information stays published for ever afterwards.

There are three prime sources of English-language filings: the European Patent Office, the US Patent Office and the World Trade Intellectual Property Organisation's Patent Cooperation Treaty. Each week they each publish several thousand new specifications - and perversely, all their online search systems work differently.

In each system, numbers, dates and keywords must be entered in different ways, with different rigid rules, for instance on the need to pad a number with leading zeros. Get anything wrong and all you get in reward is an error message and no useful advice. Trial and error is often more helpful than the online Help.

Get over that hurdle and you come up against a brick wall. All the sites do have one thing in common: they deliberately make it almost impossible for anyone to read and print a whole patent. Each page - and patents can easily be over 100 pages long - must be downloaded and printed separately. The European Office has admitted the reason why: "This was done on the basis of a voluntary restriction at the request of the commercial operators." In other words, if members of the public or company employees can search and access patents too easily, they will not pay experts to do it for them.

Heaven help you

So the world's most valuable source of technical information remains absurdly under-exploited, to protect commercial interests. And big companies can continue to have their cake and eat it, by patenting ideas to earn royalties, safe in the knowledge that those ideas are likely remain artificially secret. The British Library publishes a list of links to most of the world's databases But it comes with a warning on the practical difficulties of searching and promotes the library's own fee-based search services.

Heaven help those companies if the world's patent offices ever do start honouring the spirit of the patent system, and make it truly easy for anyone to read what companies are trying to monopolise. The word "patent" would then finally fit its dictionary definition - and make innovation open, readily visible and intelligible.

Who knows, even the companies whose inventions are patented might benefit. They seem to find the system as difficult as everyone else. For example, aerospace giant Lockheed Martin had to ask for outside help on how to find one of its own patents, which revealed the company's intriguing plans for putting an intelligent Internet system in space to lighten the load on conventional Internet links and servers.

Much the same thing happened a couple of years ago with IBM. The company's researchers came up with a way to stop hacking attacks aimed at taking web servers off the Internet, and filed for a patent. But when the company's official spokesman in Europe was asked when the world could hope to benefit from what IBM's patents revealed, he could only say he hadn't a clue.  "This is the first I've heard of the patent, so I'm flying a bit blind - IBM is not a small company," he admitted to me. "I put feelers out to a half-dozen people and no one was familiar with the patent. I've gone back to colleagues in R&D, who are trying to track this down."

"Any ideas?" the IBMer was finally forced to cry.

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