On the surface, it seems like filing a patent shouldn’t be too difficult: you describe your idea, fill out forms, and send it off to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). But there’s a very important step missing from that process: the search for prior art. When filing a patent, it’s important to be sure that no one else has filed a patent on the idea previously, as well as to be aware of any related patents that another company may have filed. Such a search can require a ridiculous number of hours, which has lead to several companies offering tools to manage the process, particularly offering the option of crowdsourcing the search for prior art.

The entire patent crowdsourcing effort started with a project from the USPTO: Peer-to-Patent allows anyone interested in the patent process to review and discuss patent applications. These reviewers can point applicants to prior art, cutting down on the time it takes the USPTO to search out prior art and determine the validity of a patent application. The program is quite limited, however, reviewing only patents related to computer hardware and software.

While the USPTO relies on volunteer reviewers, Article One Partners posts patent information along with bounties for information about prior art. It offers the opportunity for both patent applicants, as well as individuals defending existing patents, to outsource necessary information. The price tags for these crowdsourced reviews range from $15,000 to $50,000 — but the bounties are only paid out when a reviewer can come up with documentation on whether or not a patent is legitimate. That price may still seem steep, but it’s still far less than a court case to defend a patent.

Both options can provide a way to speed up the patent process significantly. However, there’s room for growth, both for Peer-to-Patent and Article One Partners. Each service is essentially in the pilot stages, and it’s yet to be seen whether volunteers passionate about their area of expertise or paid researchers will be better equipped to conduct a search. Right now, the value of these services is simply a faster option than trying to manage a prior art search on your own. In the future, they may prove a simple method to speed up the process of patent applications at the swamped USPTO.

There are more than a few tools out there that will manage the entire patent process for you. However, many have been focused on enterprise users — companies who file multiple patent applications each year. Because of the time and knowledge necessary for a new patent, crowdsourcing may provide a particularly useful way to approach the application process for a person working on just one patent application, rather than a whole list. Especially when you start looking at international patent law, it seems likely that more tools meant for individual patents will be available in the coming years — and more than a few of them will make use of crowdsourcing.

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