Fun Friday: Outing Bad Patents

We've all had that reaction when seeing that a certain patent was issued – "how the hell did they get a patent on that?". Well now we can have fun outing those ridiculous patent applications before they get issued.

Yesterday our portfolio company Stack Exchange launched a new Stack powered community called Ask Patents. Here's how Stack CEO Joel Spolsky describes it:

Ask Patents is a new Stack Exchange site launching today that allows anyone to participate in the patent examination process. It’s a collaborative effort, supported by Stack Exchange, the US Patent and Trademark Office, and the Google Patent Search team. It’s very exciting, because it is opening up a process that has been conducted behind closed doors for over 200 years.

I don't really need to discuss how badly our patent process is broken to here. We've discussed it ad naseum.

What we can and should discuss is how an open collaborative crowd based approach to patent examination can improve the process. I am hopeful that it will. And I am thrilled that the USPTO opted to partner with Stack Exchange to run this process. Stack's sites, rules, and processes take a bit of getting used to. They are geeky for sure. But they produce very high quality collaborative debates on questions with definitive answers that the community resolves and the quality of the results they get from this process is extremely high.

This is not like asking the Yahoo Answers community to do patent examination. That would be laughable. This is a much more serious effort, based on "prior art". Joel explains:

Ask Patents is a collaborative effort, neatly tagged by keywords and classification, and searchable by patent application number. It is inspired by a research project called Peer To Patent, run out of New York Law School. That pilot project, created by Professor Beth Noveck, proved very successful at identifying prior art that the USPTO wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

So instead of our regular fun friday routine, I'm asking everyone to go spend a few minutes on Ask Patents and see if you might enjoy becoming a part time patent examiner yourself. I am headed there now.


Comments (Archived):

  1. raycote

    So to make the first comment I have to be up at 3:20 AM !

    1. fredwilson

      in the bay areayou could do it at lunch in barcelona

      1. Pravin J

        4:00 PM IST. Tea time in India, works best 🙂

        1. Avi Deitcher

          I always get to view AVC at about 1:00pm when I am in Israel. I feel way behind when I only get it at 7:30am (usually after a game of hockey) when I am on the East Coast.

    2. jason wright

      you need to move east, way east.

    1. fredwilson

      yup. that gives a good view of the diversity and breadth of the stack community

      1. Michael L. Slonecker

        Projects such as this are interesting, but unlikely to have any meaningful impact unless those who choose to participate intimately understand the process and substantive rules of law applied during the prosecution of a patent application. For example, the uninitiated oftentimes think that citing a reference relating the the subject matter of an application is entirely sufficient to demonstrate its “badness”. What they do not realize is that references must be relevant to the “claims” contained in the application.A far more fruitful endeavor would involve focus on the sufficiency of the invention’s disclosure, i.e., does it truly meet the “enablement” standard required by 35 USC 112. Even then, however, it must be kept in mind that one must thoroughly understand what an applicant is actually claiming to be novel and non-obvious. Using a trivial example, an applicant claims a “manufacture” for a widget. A requirement of law is that a person of ordinary skill in the art relevant to the claimed widget must be able to craft the claimed widget without undue experimentation.

        1. Pete Griffiths

          Good point. My concern is indeed that most of the critics of the system have an extremely poor understanding of it. My hope is that a side effect of this project is that it serves to educate them.

    2. Avi Deitcher

      Wow! Who knew there was so much in topical Q&A.

      1. fredwilson

        that is exactly what the stack network is – topical Q&A for questions with definitive answers

        1. Avi Deitcher

          Yep, I remember when the first one came out. But it is the sheer size (“so much” in my comment) that amazes me.

      2. Pravin J

        there should be more. guess they have stopped updating that page.

  2. jason wright

    “…and see if you might enjoy becoming a part time patent examiner…”NO, I can’t imagine it. I have lawyer friends I can well imagine would gain a sense of professional satisfaction, but ‘enjoy’….I’m doubting it.

  3. Avi Deitcher

    Question: My impression was always that the problem with the patent system wasn’t primarily too many patents for prior art, but that patents were issued for absurd ideas, mainly business process, but also patently (pun intended) obvious ideas.Is there an equally (or sufficiently) large issue with prior art, that this is necessary? Or is it a tacit admission that the biggest broken issue can only be fixed via the legislative process, which is slow (by design), and so at least tackle this part?

  4. Sean Black

    Last week Zillow filed a patent lawsuit again Trulia to try to derail our IPO yesterday http://www.chicagotribune.c…. It didn’t work! The patent is total BS and should never have been issued. It basically patents people commenting on their own homes as part of the algorithm used to estimate of the value of their home. We know it will never hold up, but it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and waste tons of time to fight. Fortunately we lead the IPO market yesterday and had one of the biggest first day gains of 2012 despite this attempt to derail the IPO

    1. pointsnfigures

      the new patent law will engender more of that. big companies will try to stop innovation through patent hoarding.

    2. LE

      I see you are an adviser with GraciousEloise.comI like that idea. I’ve gotten several personal (handwritten notes) from people (Coach store when I bought something for my wife, the local carpet dealer from the sales person (who I gave more business to), a bank and others.).I actually keep them posted up in plain view in my office.Two thoughts though.1) Hosting at dreamhost is to slow2) Pricing is confusing and the price seems to high (both the way it is explained, the gross price, what is included, and the cost per note).I like the idea though and note that the company has a patent pending as well.

  5. Sean Black

    Last week Zillow filed a patent lawsuit against Trulia to try to derail our IPO yesterday. http://www.chicagotribune.c…. The patent is total PS and should never have been issued. It basically gives Zillow the right to exclusively use comments people make on their own home in the algorithm used to estimate the value of that home. We know it will never hold up, but it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of distraction. It obviously didn’t work. Trulia’s IPO on the NYSE was a huge success and was had the biggest first day gain of 2012, but it could have.

    1. Avi Deitcher

      I tried to post a response, got lost. Lots of disqus problems lately.We should set up a “patent defense fund.” Each company contributes a few $k per year into the fund. The fund assists (financially and with legal expertise) in defending against bogus lawsuits for companies that have contributed, with the sole condition that the lawsuit be either (a) without merit or (b) have strong probability of creating precedent.

      1. Sean Black

        Actually Avi, I had to write this post twice because the first time it disappeared into thin air. It’s a great idea.

        1. Avi Deitcher

          I hope you mean the fund is a great idea, not “disappearing into thin air.” :-)We should get a good patent defense attorney, have him price out what a good defense would cost, then we can build what financials it needs.Think there is enough demand?

          1. Jorge M. Torres

            Avi, your suggestion is a type of patent hack that has been implemented by some of the developers who’ve been sued by Lodys. See: Not sure how much traction they’re getting, but I think in general this a great idea for independent developers and startups.

        2. ShanaC

          you got caught in moderation land while the moderators were waking up. Sorry!

      2. jason wright

        normally these disputes get settled privately between the lawyers. very rarely does a dispute go to public court.

        1. Avi Deitcher

          Really? I don’t know the numbers at all. Can you share how many disputes there are total, and the %age that go to court?And, would the %age increase if defendants knew there was someone behind them?

      3. ShanaC

        email help at disqus dot com with what the problem is – you’re not the only one encountering problems.

      4. ShanaC

        and isn’t this idea basically intellectual ventures?

        1. Avi Deitcher

          I am sure I don’t understand?

          1. ShanaC

            your idea sounds like the business model of intellectual ventures, aka the big patent troll.

          2. Avi Deitcher

            The exact opposite! I want a fund that serves as legal defense for companies that get hit with frivolous or bad lawsuits from larger companies or patent trolls.

        2. Pete Griffiths


          1. ShanaC

            that’s depressing

  6. William Mougayar

    We keep saying and hearing that the patent system is broken, but what is the solution? I went to Ask Patents but what I saw was a lot of discussions on the basics of patents granting & lawsuits. Good for education but how will that change the broken parts of the current process? Btw – this is what a patent examiner does, according to Wikipedia. “Patent examiners review patent applications to determine whether the claimed invention should be granted a patent. The work of a patent examiner usually includes searching patents and scientific literature databases for prior art, and examining patent applications substantively by examining whether the claimed invention meets the patentability requirements such as novelty, “inventive step” or “non-obviousness”, “industrial application” (or “utility”) and sufficiency of disclosure.”I’d like to help but am slightly confused about it. 

    1. Jorge M. Torres

      When it comes to prior art you need to keep two overarching concepts in mind. The first is novelty, or the following question: “Is the claimed invention new.” The claimed invention is not new if there is a single document (another patent, a published article, etc.) that describes each and every element of the claim. It does not have to be word-for-word, but the claimed invention has to be disclosed in such that a person of ordinary skill in the technical field in question would be able to read the disclosure and understand how to make and use the invention without an unreasonable amount of additional development work. If it’s not new, the claimed invention is not novel.Second is obviousness, which asks “even if the claimed invention is not disclosed in a single prior art reference, would it have been obvious to a reasonably skilled person in the field at the time the patent was filed?” Look at the differences between the prior art document and the claimed invention. Look at all the knowledge that’s in the prior art, including all the published articles as well as the knowledge that people of skill have in their head. Are those differences sufficient to warrant the grant of a patent? If there are no differences, of it they’re very small, then the claimed invention may be “obvious over the prior art,” and therefore, not patentable. I hope this helps and actually doesn’t add to the confusion!

      1. William Mougayar

        Thanks for the expanded explanation. You must be a lawyer? But I haven’t seen yet the threads where we can become examiners on Ask Patents. There is lots of basic education Q&A but not ones asking – is there prior art or obviousness, etc.

        1. Jorge M. Torres

          Sure, np. Yes, I’m a practicing patent attorney.There are a lot of off-topic questions on Ask Patents, and that’s a QC issue the community will have to moderate. Here’s a thread I found that asks for help “examining” patent claims: http://patents.stackexchang….Important to note that Ask Patents doesn’t allow members of the public to examine patents in the strict sense. It’s simply another tool the Patent Office can use to discover relevant prior art.

          1. William Mougayar

            Hence where the confusion lies. Fred and Joel are suggesting we can all become “part-time patent examiners”. Is that the case, or a stretch? Rather, we are helping by suggesting background data or research that we think is related to the patent discussions and which the patent examiners can take into consideration.

          2. Jorge M. Torres

            It’s the latter. You’re helping the Patent Office identify prior art that’s potentially relevant to patent claims that are currently pending before actual examiners. The only way I know to examine patents in the strict sense is to become an actual Patent Examiner in the employ of the Patent Office.

          3. William Mougayar

            Yup. That’s what I thought. Thanks.

          4. ShanaC

            that’s kind of funny, I was actually about to start looking for a patent attorney, and one just appears who I already sort of know….

    2. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

      The Idea of Crowd sourcing should really help here….I think that is the real difference and fun.The idea sounds to me like “Questioning the King”.Though you are an expert in XXX field you may not be aware all or 100% of everything about that field (rather 110%). Upon crowd sourcing it … a relatively dump fellow in that field like me could have come across a patent or a product who can add that extra 10% to make sure the ‘Only Real Patents’ are granted.

  7. Jorge M. Torres

    My friends who prosecute patents watching Ask Patents with guarded optimism. That’s because they’ve seen Peer to Patent and other apps like it before have little impact on their day-to-day work. That said, P2P was most definitely ahead of its time, having launched while the social web was in its infancy. There’s good reason to hope that this time will be different.Its great to see the ethos of “patent hacking” starting to emerge from all the angst out there over this issue. I want to put two other efforts on this community’s radar screen.The first is Article One Partners (http://www.articleonepartne…, which is a startup that crowdsources prior art for its customers using a community they’ve built up over the years. The AOP community is made up of technical people who want to earn extra money surfacing relevant prior art. AOP was actually around in the early 2000s, but without the tools of the social web available, it didn’t get sufficient traction to stay viable. When it relaunched as AOP a couple of years ago, it had a much better run. Again, timing is everything.The second is the NY Legal Hackers meetup (…. This group held its first meetup recently, and the November meetup is going to focus on patent hacks. Follow the meetup and consider attending or otherwise getting involved/supporting. A good way to do that is to propose some patent hacks for discussion in November. I’m warehousing a bunch of these that have already been proposed, so feel free to send more patent hacks my way and I’ll make sure they get considered. You can do that here or by connecting with me online. Thanks!

    1. ShanaC

      The article one patents thing is interesting in that it resolves parts of prior art issues for fields that some people know very little about.

    2. fredwilson

      thanks for highlighting both of those efforts. i will check them out

  8. John Revay

    Quick aside – I was watching comedy central last night in bed – the Daily show & the Colbert Report, and then came commercial for the Galaxy S3.Links can be found here;…It is hilarious – worth a a quick view.Side note – my mentor in life – broke his iPhone 4 last week – he went out and got the new Galaxy & loves it – especially the big honking screen.#FunFriday to all.

    1. Dave W Baldwin


    2. fredwilson

      i am in search of more “big honking screen” and have my eyes on the Note II

  9. takingpitches

    Peer to peer network supplementing a static bureaucracy – something sounds familiar.Like a lot!

    1. fredwilson

      yes. too bad this wasn’t around when steven johnson was writing Future Perfect

  10. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    Crowd sourcing patent scrutiny and patent approval … lot of lawyers are going to be angry … VERY VERY angry.This is going to fun … real fun. I am interested … Too many questions here.any restriction on geography?How many hours /month we have to put in?Are there going to be field specific Patent examiner? Medical Devices?Last but not the least …Do i get paid for it? 🙂

  11. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    My initial reaction to this is … as in Austin Power “Yah Baby”… sorry could not control.

  12. thinkdisruptive

    Philosophically, I have a problem with this.1. Most ideas are eventually obvious, so the question is “obvious to who and when”?2. All invention is based on some prior art.3. Why are we trying to prop up a system that is patently unfair, doesn’t work, has bad rules and should be completely gutted and replaced.Additionally, even if we agree that patents are a good thing, the fact is that the patent system inhibits the speed of innovation by granting questionable monopoly rights for far too long based on arbitrary rules. Even with a crowd-sourced opinion, you can have two equally “valid” applications with one accepted and the other not. The longer the patent term, the less acceptable this inequity. If patents were 5 years or less, maybe it makes more sense, but the value of many innovations has a lifespan shorter than that.So my objection is that while this process makes sense, it ultimately has the effect of delaying desperately needed change and perpetuating a bad system.

    1. Matt Zagaja

      In regards to question 1 you see the answer in the statute 35 USC 103: “(a) A patent may not be obtained though the invention is not identically disclosed or described as set forth in section 102 of this title, if the differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains. Patentability shall not be negatived by the manner in which the invention was made.”

      1. thinkdisruptive

        Yes, I’m aware of the regulation. The point is, different things are obvious to different people, and it’s a bogus requirement — easily justified or attacked depending which side you’re on. As I said, most ideas are eventually obvious, and it doesn’t take engineering skill to see it. Is “one click purchasing” obvious? Apparently not to the patent office, but it would be to most children. How about a “start button”? Well if the innovation is labelling a button with the word “start”, I suppose that’s a pretty tough one to figure out too.The reason congress was given the power in the constitution to create patent law was to encourage innovation and creativity. The mess we have now does exactly the opposite, and we’d be better off with no law at all. (And, I’m frequently reminded that the origins of IP protection in copyright was to enable the crown to censor printed materials through agents appointed to control copying.) Granting anyone monopoly power for anything is a very dangerous thing to do, and we should be very wary of it. It undermines the foundations of capitalism.

        1. Matt Zagaja

          Different things are obvious to different people, but the statute defines who that person is. A “person of ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made.” So in other words young children do not count if they would not be a person of ordinary skill in the art. Patent litigation often focuses on defining who this person having ordinary skill in the art is and then what they knew at the time of invention. One click purchasing seems obvious now, but at the time it was not. You cannot lose obviousness through the crucible of time and increased pervasiveness of the invention.

          1. thinkdisruptive

            You are arguing in circles, and that’s exactly the problem with this bad law. If a child can figure out what’s obvious, why is it so hard for a team of lawyers and engineers? If a child isn’t a person with ordinary skill in the art, who is?Most innovation comes from two things: standing on the shoulders of those who came before and naivety — not knowing what you don’t know. A child can conceive of things that patent examiners can’t because their minds aren’t constrained by too much “knowledge”. It’s also why most disruptive innovation comes from outside the industry.If you think one-click purchasing wasn’t obvious at the time, you need to give your head a shake. From the time we started clicking buttons to do anything online, clicking to purchase was obvious. Reducing the necessary clicks to the minimum is even more obvious as a design principle.And, it is ridiculous arguments like this that persuade me more and more that the best solution is to do away with patents altogether — we can’t afford for lawyers to stand in the way of innovation.

          2. Matt Zagaja

            The questions you ask are not abstract concepts without any answer, these are concrete legal questions with actual answers, which I’ve been providing from MPEP, the statute, and my own experience. For example if you want to learn more about the ordinary person in the art you can go to… and read about it.We’re not at all arguing; I very much agree the system is broken. Obviousness is just a difficult concept to tackle and so I think it helps to understand how it works. However I disagree about chucking the patent system altogether, no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

          3. thinkdisruptive

            No, they are abstract concepts with a legal answer, and in this case (as with most of the over-specified US code) the written text is contrary to the principle that it was designed to protect. There is nothing concrete about it, except the mountains of tortuous b.s. language used to distort the original idea.

          4. Matt Zagaja

            I think I understand what you are saying, but the problem is that you are saying the current system as applied does not work or does not “promote the progress of science and the useful arts” (as is the intent of the founders), without providing any competing or replacement framework suggestions other than tossing the system out altogether. I would be more interested in hearing what standards or processes we should change to improve the system.

          5. thinkdisruptive

            I don’t need to replace it with anything. We hobbled along quite well for the first 14 years of the republic without patent law — no innovators were harmed. The Patent Act of 1790… was simple and good enough. And it allowed for patents of varying length as long as it was less than 14 years. Decisions were made based on the usefulness and importance of the invention.That seems eminently reasonable, although today a cut off of 5 to 8 years seems plenty long enough, and if Ask Patents crowdsourced methods were used to make those decisions rather than a board of examiners, I’d be quite happy. In the absence of agreement on simple, short and effective patent law, none is better.By the way, I also liked the name of the Patent review panel “Commissioners for the Promotion of Useful Arts”, because it serves as a reminder why the power of patent protection exists. It isn’t there to enrich patent-holders, but to serve the public good by encouraging “useful arts”.To preserve free markets and protect capitalism, it is very important that monopolies be strictly controlled and if we’re going to officially allow a monopoly via patent law, then we have to keep it very short to prevent the opposite of public good (public harm).And, as said earlier, trade secrecy provides all the protection anyone really requires. Patents are a license to tie up the courts with dumb battles and/or rip off consumers by artificially inflating prices. Both of those are harmful to the public good.

    2. JamesHRH

      The key error in your comment is ‘eventually’.Of course its obvious, after someone else does the hard work of making it so.The reasons for the validity of patents are:- the quality of an idea can vary widely- the difficulty in copying someone else’s idea varies littlePeople who are willing to take the massive risk of galvanizing a hugely impactful idea out of the galaxy of ideas that may or may not be impactful, deserve the reward of protection.To avail themselves of that protection, they should be required to show:- that they have gained some market accpetance- that an infringing party has had a material effect on their ability to retain or garner further market accetpanceThe argument that first movers do not reduce costs and create other efficiencies fast enough is not valid: without the first movers, there is nothing to streamline.The efforts of the truly innovative are worth protecting. Let’s hope Ask Patents assists us in making the world of patents fairer and more effective.

      1. thinkdisruptive

        Most innovations are obvious to anyone with the right information at the same time as patents are filed. They are also obvious to a number of people who lack specific domain expertise. That’s the reality of the world today. I see the merits of rewarding real invention for a short time (current times are ridiculously long and lead to tons of unnecessary litigation and harm innovation), as the original statutes specified, but it is also clear that absent that kind of reform, we are better off without a patent system. Trade secrecy gives nearly the same level of protection without the need for an expensive bureaucratic overhead, and by default forces cases to be real before they get to court (does away with trolls).But, you appear to suffer under the delusion of “eureka moments” and that innovation springs out of thin air. In order to advance anything, you need to leverage what has come before. Without access to prior innovations, we’d all be reinventing the wheel. The reason that the constitution specified protection for a limited time (i.e. short) was to balance the public good and future progress against the desire to reward innovators. We have lost all perspective on that balance to the harm of the public, and frankly it’s harmful to current innovators as well.Your remarks are borderline pure rhetoric, and certainly not founded in reality. This in particular: “People who are willing to take the massive risk of galvanizing a hugely impactful idea out of the galaxy of ideas that may or may not be impactful” — the risk is not in coming up with an idea, the risk is in implementation and execution, where most of the effort and cost lies, and that same risk applies to the innovator and anyone who reuses the idea. The real innovation (and cost) is in establishing product/market fit, not in the invention itself, because until someone makes the invention useful, it is nothing but a clever idea or discovery. It’s what I would expect of a lawyer arguing in court, not what someone who understands the process of innovation and bringing products to market would say.As I said in the first comment, Ask Patents is far more likely to perpetuate the wrongs of the current system and defer real reform than it is to make patents fairer or more effective.

        1. JamesHRH

          Your interpretation of my commments would be far more accurate, if you applied your reasoning to them.The risk in chasing ideas is in the execution.By chasing ideas ou are not taking any other ‘safe career’ paths, which means, after a certain period of time those options are closed to you.It’s not about Eureka moments, it’s about unemployment.

          1. thinkdisruptive

            Sorry, I have no idea what you are trying to say. A bunch of non sequiturs here.

          2. JamesHRH

            There is an entrepreneurial experience gap.

          3. thinkdisruptive


          4. JamesHRH

            I don’t think you have any relevant experience to understand my point of view – most of your interpretations of my comments are not just incorrect, they are exactly the opposite of the position I hold.I do not believe in Eureka moments.My comments are nowhere near rhetoric.I believe that most innovation is built via repetition and resilience.I also happen to agree with you that the standards for patents – before enforcement and establishment – are in need a significant overhauling.That does not mean that true innovators should not be protected when they are most vulnerable to being undermined by predacious competitors whose main advantages are economic.And, my rationale for believing so lies in the practical reality that entrepreneurs quickly work themselves into an entrepreneur or nothing career path. They need to be protected (and have the perception that they will be protected) in order to increase the number of people who pursue that career path.The main difference I see between us is your approach to comments you don’t understand.I try to ask questions.You appear to believe that comments you don’t understand are made by incoherent fools.That’s not a great sign that you have confidence in your ability to perceive and comprehend other’s experiences and perspectives.Good luck with that.

          5. thinkdisruptive

            a) no interpretations — have taken everything at face valueb) odd assumptions and interpretations of the person you’re discussing with for someone who doesn’t make themc) you started out by asserting that I was in error. I gave you reasons why I wasn’t that you don’t accept. d) you didn’t answer when explanation was asked for, but rather became more inscrutablee) I have been around startups and entrepreneurs pretty much my entire life, including my own businessesf) this is first time you’ve stated your thinking clearlyg) there is plenty of rhetoric in your writing — you may not recognize it because you believe it or think it self-evidentSo, let me deal with your conclusions, and leave the rest alone.1) Trade secret law provides better protection than patents in most cases, because it doesn’t require prior disclosure. The formula for Coke, for example, is protected by trade secrecy, even though it could be chemically dissected and reverse engineered. Hasn’t hurt them to not have a patent.2) I don’t believe that “true” innovations which don’t depend on prior innovations and which are not obvious to people with the same level of knowledge (or even those without it) exist in anything but very small numbers3) I have been around startups and innovators pretty much my entire life, including my own businesses4) patent law doesn’t protect execution, which is where we agree the time, effort and risk is, it protects original invention which is extremely rare (see 2)5) We absolutely disagree about “the practical reality” that entrepreneurs either succeed as entrepreneurs or have no career path. In my experience, some of the most employable people are failed entrepreneurs, if they can work with other people.6) If we agreed that (5) was true, protecting a career path for an entrepreneur is not a legitimate reason to support creation of artificial monopolies. We don’t protect anyone else from failure or protect a right to employment for any other individual in a capitalist system.7) Entrepreneurs accept risk and thrive on it. They believe they can do what others can’t, and many times they can. They will chose to be entrepreneurs because it’s in their blood, not because of patent protection. The rewards for entrepreneurship are great, even when you fail.8) My position is quite simple: a bad patent system, such as the regime we’ve built up, is worse than no patents at all. And, for the most part, patents don’t protect entrepreneurs, rather they provide cover for large corporations who have the deep pockets to file for them and defend them. Unless you’re prepared to spend years in court “proving” the validity and relevance of your patent, perhaps spending more than your business is worth, a patent is virtually worthless to an entrepreneur. That’s not the way it is supposed to be, but it is the way it is. There are companies I’ve worked with who’ve chosen not to file patents, even though they could have, for precisely this reason. It’s better to focus on building a business and keeping your innovations secret, than to be distracted by filing for and defending patents. And, I’ve seen at least two instances where even having received patents, it’s been decided that it isn’t worthwhile to enforce them because the cost of doing so, or doing so and failing would put the company out of business.Am sorry if I gave the impression that I think you are an incoherent fool. I don’t believe that at all — you’re just someone I disagree with, or haven’t convinced yet. We disagree, clearly — perhaps not on details, but certainly on the conclusion and solution. But frankly, I expect to disagree with most people on this. That doesn’t make them foolish, but it does require to make them stop and think about why things are the way they are and whether that is right.

          6. JamesHRH

            Series of non-sequiturs does not leave much room for interpretation. – illogical & disjointed statements.I don’t fully agree with 5,6,7 & the first sentence of 8 however – but it is not the central point.Your position is very close to mine & your solution is interesting. Thanks for taking the time to lay it out.

        2. Matt A. Myers

          Just curious of example sof what real invention is to you? Re: “I see the merits of rewarding real invention”

          1. thinkdisruptive

            That’s a very good question. I haven’t explicitly considered it, although off the top of my head, maybe the first mouse, as a way to control what happens on a screen. Everything since then is derivative, including multi-touch. I’d have to think about it, because there really is very little that is truly original, and not just an incremental enhancement of something that’s already been done. I certainly don’t see any business processes or algorithms or software that should be awarded patents.

          2. Matt A. Myers

            The first mouse would have been based on someone with certain knowledge and trying to solve a problem – first realizing needing a a device like a mouse, and then using cheapest and current existing technologies, piecing them together as individual parts and making a new invention. That’s what is common among all patents, or supposed to be, that you take usually existing parts and put them together in a novel way. It’s user-experience and interface design improvements. These improvements will continue as technology improves, which will come from increased understanding in different scientific and other fields.I wonder if your distaste (I have a distaste for patents too) is confusing why you don’t like them. I think there’s validity in how they exist or are quality-checked (not that it’s done well), and I do believe that everything that can be invented will eventually be invented – and I believe patents shouldn’t exist because they increase costs and stop the most people possible benefitting from invention; At least not while we’re at this stage of evolution where not everyone is taken care of and fully benefitting from our current technologies to be able to live a full and healthy and productive life.

          3. thinkdisruptive

            As I said, that was off the top of my head. I know there were pen on pad devices before the mouse. It’s the change in metaphor that makes it less obvious to use a mouse, but as I said, I’d have to think about it. My original point was that all innovation is based on what has been done before (i.e. there is prior art for everything), so it’s kind of bogus to claim a 20 year monopoly based on an incremental change or re-application of something that already exists.I’m not sure what you mean by my distaste confusing why I don’t like them. My distaste for the process is because I don’t fundamentally believe that the government should grant monopolies to anyone for anything, and the only reason to do it is to recoup the cost of innovation, not to guarantee profits to the entrepreneur for the entire life of a product. Which is why I could only hold my nose if IP protection is granted for a “limited time” as originally intended. And, if I was designing such a system, it would be restricted to things that are truly importantThe reality is that there is an inherent contradiction in an innovator leveraging someone else’s innovation and then claiming an exclusive right that prevents the next innovator from doing the same. That is, patents inhibit innovation rather than promote it and raise costs to the consumer. All of this is contrary to the spirit in which the constitution allowed that congress could pass laws to “promote the useful arts”.As I said, I believe that “real (breakthrough, fundamentally different and novel) innovation” is very rare. Even innovations that are very important (the telephone) was based on using telegraph wires to transmit sound originally. So, I think we agree — just confused about the “distaste” bit.btw, I have similar objections to all IP protection law. Copyright seems particularly anachronistic in the internet age (… ), and should never be used as a hammer to protect incumbents from ever needing to change (see:… )

      2. gbacoder

        First mover advantage nearly always rewards big enough companies that invest anyway. Look at IPhone: first device to use capacitive touch screen, quality display and good processor. I’m not saying patents would be scrapped. I think they are useful. Much better if the patent office sets the amount they can charge for a licence, based on just how obvious it would have been. And this could go down over time. This allows the small inventor to get a worthy return for the time period in which the idea would probably not have been invented / so obvious. For Apple to get a billion for basic things no better than pinch to zoom is totally crazy. It’s also crazy they should be able to block others from using it! It’s no more clever / obvious than using the mouse wheel to zoom. Once you have the quality screen that can detect two fingers at once – then it becomes extremely obvious (to me at least) that you could place two fingers on it, and vary the distance between them to control some function. How this ever got passed and held up is crazy. But it was a court in California, some something may be going on there. It’s examples like this that draw shame on the patent system, which could work well if used properly.

    3. Luke Chamberlin

      You say you want a revolutionWell, you knowWe all want to change the worldYou say you got a real solutionWell, you knowWe’d all love to see the plan- John Lennon

      1. thinkdisruptive

        “Nothing” is a better solution. For a better answer, see…When something is bad enough, simply getting rid of it is a solution.

      2. Matt A. Myers

        Working on it..

    4. fredwilson

      i am opposed to software and business method patents too. but if you can’t change the system (we are trying but i am not optimistic), then you can hack the system

  13. Jim Vitek

    This is a really interesting concept. It’s easy to see how this could help patent litigation, and I hope it will help knock out many patents that should have never been issued.However, I’m not sold that this will dramatically help the examination process. Patent applications need to be novel by definition, and in many cases need to be confidential. How is it that crowds can help perform a prior art search on an unpublished patent application? An examiner could certainly summarize the issue, but it will be difficult to communicate a truly novel, non-obvious solution without breaching confidentiality.AskPatents could cause more inventors to file for nonpublication, and this could make prior-art searches more difficult than they currently are.

    1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

      Jim (at least in Europe) patent applications are published on application and prior to examination. They reserve a date from which if granted they are inforceable – thus there is no confidentiality concern – to patent IS to publish.The skill is in the wording.Singer sewing machines patented the fact that the thread passed through the leading end of the needle. This innovation was key to the entire machine.

      1. Jim Vitek

        An inventor can file a US patent application with a nonpublication request (… if they don’t plan on filing in other countries. The delay between filing and patent grant/rejection probably didn’t mean much 100 years ago, but is obviously a huge factor today given the patent backlog & pace of technical progress. Keeping a patent application confidential through this method could be an effective way to thwart an examiners ability to use AskPatents.I’m not saying I agree with this… just pointing out an issue with it

        1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

          Jim Thanks – I was completely unaware of this.I acknowledge that you do not agree with it – but here’s my two cents.This seems absurd to me – If there is a value in a patent system it is to encourage sharing of technology for the greater good.Thus the aim is Not to reward the inventor for invention (who typically cannot help himself – its in their genes).Rather to reward him/her for documenting the idea for posterity (ie knowledge transfer encouragement), and serve the society.If the system is seen as a means to obfuscate good work, set traps, and stifle inventivity, it has failed in its purpose.

  14. Max Yoder

    This. Is. Awesome.

  15. Dave W Baldwin

    Love it Fred. This is something that will be important moving forward.

  16. aarondelcohen

    Is there some freudian angle to the fact that I initiallly read this as “outing bad parents?”Sometimes we tend to gloss over some of the true achievements of a story like this one. I’m guessing the journey that ended with StackExchange partnering with the federal government was very arduous. To partner with them at all is an achievement. Can we point to similar examples with, say, the FDA or Department of Homeland Security?I don’t frequent StackExchange communities, but I think it’s clear they can build a good product. But building product and finding ways to partner with large companies and bureaucracies on something this innovative is an unusual accomplishment technology companies in general, let alone a startup. Well done.

    1. Todd Werelius

      LOL! I read the exact same thing “Outing Bad Parents” followed by a brief WTF reaction …

    2. fredwilson

      the USPTO came to them

  17. Seth Lieberman

    I assume you filed a patent on this process?

  18. ShanaC

    Being that I am about to file a patent – I think the problem might not be around the patent per say as much as the business culture. If I want to license an idea, I now need to patent.I think the other problem with this site is that it doesn’t have (at the moment) the community to look at other kinds of patents that aren’t software.

    1. LE

      ” If I want to license an idea, I now need to patent.”You don’t need a patent to license an idea. You can license an idea in a sense by showing or making a turn key solution to a problem saving people or companies time and effort to having to do the same thing with their own research and effort. People want easy solutions.It will take you years to get your patent, and there is no guarantee that once you get the patent (and spend money for it) you will be able to get anyone to license it. [1]If your idea is really big, you will have to spend money to defend the patent because everybody and their uncle will compete with you. If it’s not big it’s off the radar, nobody will care much, and you can still make money with it.Once again, w/o knowing your idea the above is just my quick thoughts. But you are a single person operator, you’re not an established company in a market that has just developed a way to quickly do something, or improve a process, and don’t want your competitors at the trade shows you attend to be able to easily rip off your idea. “New dampening system for web offset presses”.The time and money you spend on trying to secure a patent could be spent actually trying to sell something to someone, making actual sales, and getting established before anyone else even knows or attempts to do the same thing. And if they do, assuming they don’t have a huge cost advantage they will actually further legitimize what you are doing.[1] I’m saying this of course w/o knowing what your idea is and assuming you aren’t going to disclose that idea. By the way I guess this is obvious but the patent attorney’s will of course lean toward telling you your idea is great. So will friends, family and acquaintances.

  19. Joel Grus

    I don’t quite get what the dividing line is between “good patents” and “bad patents”. Are all the thousands of patents involved in Global Smartphone Thermonuclear War “bad patents”? If so, you’re expecting “Ask Patents” to accomplish unrealistically a lot. And if not, then they’re not really solving the problem. So while I agree that patents are a huge problem, I’m sort skeptical that this will make things measurably better.

    1. ShanaC

      Great Critique – at what point is something bad?

      1. Pete Griffiths

        There is a clear line. This is not a ‘moral’ question but rather a technical legal one. A bad patent:a) is not novel ie there is prior artb) is obvious ie one ordinarily skilled in the art finds it to be soc) has a description section that ‘doesn’t work’ ie one ordinarily skilled in the art could not build int invention in question from the descriptiond) claims that overreach the description

        1. ShanaC

          when is something not novel or not obvious? How ordinary does ordinary have to be?Look, we all go through paradigm shifts in which a-c was true and no longer is. At those moments it seems to me that there is a weirdness to saying something is unpatentable – not everyone has gone through that shift and would agree.

          1. Pete Griffiths

            “when is something not novel…?” – when there is prior art”when is something…not obvious?” – when those with ordinary skill in the art agree that it is not obvious at the time it is patented.”How ordinary does ordinary have to be?” – ordinary skill in the art means a regular professional degree of competence in the relevant skill set.”Look, we all go through paradigm shifts in which a-c was true and no longer is.” – indeed we do but the whole point of the patent process is that novelty, obviousness and ordinary skill in the art AT THE TIME OF PATENTING the invention. Later things do indeed become non-novel, and obvious and skill sets do change. But a frequent misunderstanding of the viability of patents stems from the fact that something is non-novel or obvious now does not mean it was obvious then.

          2. ShanaC

            I thought this comment(… ) by @kwiqly:disqus was really insightful as to why not. The strings being coated by UV protectorant for two different industries (and hence two different patents) does not seem obvious to me, so why the hold up?

          3. James Ferguson @kWIQly

            Shanac – Have replied to clarify above – In short the current state of the art assumes you have encyclopediaic for every subject that may bear on the matter.You can call on ANY published material, anywhere, in any language on any media and in any specialist domain to show prior art.So a temple vase known to have been in China (created and published in 1500BC) is only discovered today and put in a museum. It carries etched into it engineering drawings showing the way to build a Rubiks cube puzzle.Rubiks cube patent ttp://… would now no longer infringe Nichols invention… and Ideal could sue Moleculon Research Corp to recover their lossesIt gets kind of more silly if you start including aesthetics and software . (It’s relatively trivial to write a piece of code that will generate every piece of software that could ever be written ). Donald Knuth makes the point brilliantly and understandably here – I can’t compete so I wont !

        2. thinkdisruptive

          A bad patent is any patent. Monopolies are always bad. Granting a government license for a monopoly is anathema to capitalism.It absolutely is a question of right and wrong, not of legality. When things that are morally repugnant and wrong are written into law, it damages the social fabric and well-being of the country.

          1. Pete Griffiths

            The problem with positions such as this, which paint everything in black and white moral terms is that whilst such absolutes may make sense for the examples the person making the argument likes to cite they typically fail to take proper account of important counter examples.Let’s examine a very concrete case and see how your position holds up.It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to research and test a drug and get it through FDA. But once it is on the market spectroscopy will quickly reveal the chemical composition of the drug and it can therefore be copied almost immediately. The copier incurs none of the R&D cost and hence can sell his knockoff product at a fraction of the cost of the inventor thereby pushing the inventor, who needs to recoup his investment, out of the market. In such circumstances there is absolutely no way that any sane CEO would ever ever ever invest in developing a drug. The consequence would be that instead of billions of dollars being invested globally in new medications, there would only be such investment as governments were prepared to invest. The consequence for drug research would be devastating and this, imho, would damage ‘the social fabric and well being of the country.’The patent system, the nature of innovation and the social good are way too complex to be distilled down into simple moral imperatives.

          2. thinkdisruptive

            It seems that everyone who wants to defend the patent system turns to drug research. Possibly because it is the only area where you actually have significant investment with significant risk. Even if we accept that this is a valid example, it certainly doesn’t justify patents in any other domain.But, let’s look specifically at drug research.Firstly, there is no “useful art” here. Drug research is pure discovery. It’s like drilling for oil. You just keep making holes until something comes out. It is an expensive and time-consuming process, but the really painful part is proving value without harm in the clinical trial process. What’s worse (and which you don’t mention) is that we don’t cut the drug companies any liability slack when the product is released and after 10M people have used it, 5 exceptional cases arise where people die. Vioxx comes to mind.Secondly, none of these facts argue for patent protection. In fact, quite the opposite. But before I say why, let’s look at other reasons that the current system is wrong for drug research.- once life-saving drugs are approved, they are priced outrageously to maximize profit during the patent protection period, putting them out of reach of many who need them and raising the cost of insurance for all of us- because they are so costly, the insurance company rather than the doctor often becomes the decider regarding whether you get treatment or not as prescribed- drug companies are incented to go after “blockbuster” drugs, and then aggressively market them (encouraging people who don’t need them to request them, and denying investment in drugs that save more lives but don’t generate equivalent profit (e.g. vaccines: )- when there is a new class of drug that is successful, everyone rushes to make one, denying deserving research funding to other conditions (e.g. COX2 inhibitors, statins)- we get dozens of penis-enhancement drugs, but little advancement in “curing” chronic conditions like diabetes (pharmas are like pushers — better to keep you using something forever than to find a fix)All of these distortions and negative effects have their roots in the current system that encourages companies to chase patents and profits rather than improve the overall health result. (You get more of what you measure and reward.)Thirdly, these unique characteristics of the pharma industry, and the fact that the results of the regime we’ve created are often immoral, argue for a completely different way to discover and make drugs, and against patent protection.What possibilities should be considered:- remove the incentive to chase blockbusters. If you continue to have patents, require compulsory licensing. This also reduces the incentive to redundancy (how many anti-cholesterol drugs are enough). Firms would compete on efficiency of production rather than who gets lucky and discovers oil first, reducing costs considerably.- discovery and production rights should be separated. In this scenario, we might move all drug research and discovery to universities. This would be a great reason to increase funding for basic research, help reduce the cost of education (university labs would be required to run profitably), and reduce the overall cost of research and risk by spreading investigation around. Perhaps two or three schools get funding to research into a specific disease or conditions, and the funding is applied to different alternatives for fixing the problem. They could also be paid to run the trials, which would eliminate the incentive to cheat and hide bad data (as was charged with Celebrex, for example, and lots of other trials). In this scenario, there is no reason for patents. The country owns the discoveries and licenses companies to produce the resulting drug variations based on that discovery. We would have more, and more productive research at lower cost, and substantially reduce the costs of the resulting drugs in production. Liability no longer falls to the producer of the drugs, except for things like contamination during production — the risks are known and accepted by all of us. Companies could take existing discoveries and explore in additional directions at their discretion, but independent university labs would still be hired to do the testing. We could allow short term protection (5 years) to incentivize this, which would continue to give us alternatives in the same class, but much less incentive to price gouging, and much lower risk than how it’s done now.- if there are multiple producers for every drug, the government would no longer be allowed to set the price, nor have any reason to (acting as a monopsony, which is one of the reasons that drug makers don’t like vaccines, since governments are often the only buyer and dictate unprofitable pricing.) The government would simply pay a competitive market price.- the drugs that get researched would be decided by benefit to society and where the greatest needs for health and savings to the overall system are likely based on the research proposals from universities.These changes completely eliminate the need for patent protection and fix most of the problems that exist with the current system while reducing healthcare costs. They also address your issues (no problem with copying — we want multiple manufacturers to make the same things and compete on efficiency and improved business processes. They have no incentive to copy when we’ll give them the copy under license.) There are probably other ways to achieve similar ends, but it is clear that patents for drugs are a bad idea that harm the public good (i.e. are contrary to the reason that patents exist).So, I don’t buy pharma as the counter-example. It’s actually a primary example that demonstrates why patents are bad. Of course, there are lots of people who would not favor these changes, particularly managers and shareholders in companies like Pfizer and Merck, but I have little sympathy for monopolies in healthcare whose sole purpose is maximum profit extraction and not patient care.I agree with you that the patent system is complex. Another good reason to get rid of it. It doesn’t provide any greater protection than trade secrecy, other than the right to spend years and tens of millions of dollars suing all your competitors on spurious grounds (or in the case of trolls, to extract a tax on the industry and public, without providing any offsetting good to society). The reason the patent system exists is based on a moral principle — it ought to adhere to that principle or be abolished.

          3. Michael Elling

            Wow! I vote for bringing back Plato’s Republic! “Democratic” govt regulation and oversight has so many unintended and opposite effects and outcomes. Certainly has been the case in my domain of telecommunications.

          4. Pete Griffiths

            The reason I chose drugs because it is a clear counter example to a bald statement that patents have no social value. Your reply is a wide ranging discussion of what you consider to be the ills of big pharma but it doesn’t actually address the key point, which is that without patent protection these companies wouldn’t invest. Ironically many of the problems you cite are consequences of capitalism rather than the patent system and your proposed reform of moving R&D to state funded research facilities is the very antithesis of capitalism. Incidentally, my experience with people familiar with the reality of resource allocation in state funded research has been that they are the first to decry its efficiency as a means of allocating scarce resources.With respect to your statement that patents don’t provide more protection than trade secrecy this is clearly wrong. A trade secret can only be maintained when the critical IP can be held secret. For example, Google’s server side ranking algorithm. But for many products, including drugs, there can be no such secrecy.

          5. thinkdisruptive

            My reply is a discussion of the distortions created by patents which create monopolies and misplaced incentives. It’s not about what’s wrong with pharma per se — they are doing what the system incentivizes. It is the system that’s wrong.And it isn’t capitalism — monopolies are not a function of capitalism, but an explicit breaking of capitalism. Free markets and competition, which are the defining features of capitalism and it’s primary justification (see Adam Smith) are broken by monopolies. So, your logic is inside out. (Although, I’ll grant you it’s what most people believe, because they’ve been mis-educated to believe that patents are a natural right and a feature of capitalism.)The notion that no drugs would be developed without patents, and that therefore patents have social value is simply wrong. We have open source operating systems and databases, etc (which I’m sure many of the folks reading this use) — if we can get people to work together on software with no expectation of patents or profit, what makes you think drugs couldn’t be researched and developed the same way? I gave an alternative system under which the risks associated with research would be covered, and yes, I believe that government-sponsored research would have its own set of problems, but much fundamental research is already funded by government. We could also enable crowd-sourced decisions about what to fund — the key is that the decision about how resources are allocated to research should not be driven by the expectation of monopoly-driven profits, but by health needs.As for drugs, you can know what’s in them chemically — that doesn’t necessarily translate into the process by which the drug is made. The only protection for Coke is trade secret law — that seems to have worked just fine. Regardless, my two alternatives for pharma were patents with compulsory licensing, or no patents with research separated from production rights. I didn’t suggest trade secrecy for drugs, but for algorithms. Patents should simply not be granted for business processes or software.

          6. Pete Griffiths

            Looks like we’re just going to have to agree to differ.

    2. LE

      “”good patents” and “bad patents””Having had many dealings with the USPTO’s trademark office examiners (not patents but trademarks) much of it has to do with the skill (and ulterior motives) of the person examining vs. the skill and reputation of the person and the firm attempting to get (at least) a trademark granted. Examiners are paperwork pushers and they are looking to clear cases off their desk. My experience.I would also speculate that attorneys at the USPTO are biased toward being nice to attorneys at large law firms because they perceive that it would be beneficial and they would be able to step into private practice after contact.Here is at least one backup easily found for my thoughts:

    3. fredwilson

      bad patents in Joel’s vernacular are just patents that should not have been issued

  20. James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Fred – This is great (with a minor reservation).Yes – we can push for improved prior art search, and any tech / crowdsourcing to support this is a fantastic initiative.It lifts the bar for trolls and it pushes reward toward the inventor.It could also massively defensive patents simply by ensuring prior art has been cited.Elimination of redundancy reduces costs, and makes for more concise future searches.But… One thing is not addressed – the “non-obviousness” or “inventive step” to one skilled and knowledgeable of the state of the art.Patents that were blocked for prior art citation when I was an patent search examiner (European Patent Office circa 1983) included a UV treatment for cat-gut on tennis racket strings. The “prior art” of a treatment for cello strings for outdoor concerts concerts was sufficient to stymie the application.So thirty years ago musical instruments were prior art for sports equipment.Now it appears that curved corners, such as may be seen on the keyboard I am typing on are not an anticipation of a display configuration on that same device.It seems that either the imagination of the modern inventor is failing or what is deemed obvious has bent into a shape that better suits patent litigators.We can and should search prior art more effectively AND surely also fight to maintain the height of the bar that the inventive step once required.To be an inventor used to mean something now it is a synonym for sorry I misspoke but its patentable anyway.

    1. William Mougayar

      So you were a patent examiner! Wow. What has changed from your early days til now in terms of patent examination decision-making given that the online explosion didn’t exist in the 80’s?

      1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

        Hi William – (still loving engagio)Biggest change is undoubtedly search technology – When I joined and very soon quit performance was (I kid you not) recorded in meters of A4 reference material read per week.Since this was in three languages and arcane grammar “I a subject of her Majesty blah blah” in reality it relied on the search examiners familiarity with a domain and the wholly hierarchical classification system. A tagged search function would have made a huge difference.I moved on because I started sawing my head off with a rusty spoon so that I would have something to talk about when I got home. Though I could talk about balloon catheters and high-frequency jet ventilation in the mechanical-medical domain until the cows came home.In short we were absurdly overpaid non-tax paying bureaucrats with engineering degrees and foreign languages but no real world experience. The tax free salary helped and a huge dose of 1980’s arrogance. So I bought a Porsche 944 (bright red of course leather seats and a tax free privilege) – before I learned to drive ! Much gambling, drinking, time-wasting ensued. Getting fired “voluntarily I might add” – they paid my un-worked notice period of 6 months !!! , it was the best thing that I had happen to me. After that I got a job !In terms of decision making the only thing that has changed is that now I know “my arse from my elbow” – I am not sure how that correlates to the current cohorts of search examiners, but I am pretty sure we would have to fill out an application in quadruplicate in ten languages to find out !

        1. William Mougayar

          That’s fascinating! So, the patent examination sausage-making thing isn’t that pretty nor consistent after all.

    2. ShanaC

      “So thirty years ago musical instruments were prior art for sports equipment.”Umm, why?

      1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

        It was reasonable – the invention was a doping material to prevent UV damage to strings made of catgut that is exposed to sunlight. Th material catgut is taughtly strung on both tennis rackets and musical instruments.The problem and solution are identical – so someone with awareness of the state of the art (of protecting catgut from UV light) is deemed to know this as an obvious solution. The fact that the strings are used in different places (to vibrate and to repel a ball) is immaterial.My point is that with many many design and software patents – if one looks at commonality (eg use a mouse event to trigger an action, or round corners to make them pretty or smooth), the notion of inventivity collapses UNLESS someone invents something that is actually Non-Obvious. This hurdle has been lowered to the price of an application.Interstingly now search catgut and go to wikipedia and you find in microseconds both applications mentioned – implication – if you can use wikipedia you can invent !

    3. Pete Griffiths

      Unless I am mistaken it is still trickier because an invention can be a non-obvious use of previous inventions which can include a non-obvious application area. In this case the application area was deemed to be too close. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be inventions which are the non-obvious application of the prior art to a different area.Such applications to unexpected areas can be very non-obvious. There is plenty of precedent for this in science. In math for example it is probably not obvious why a deep grasp of the theory of elliptic curves is helpful to better understand prime numbers.

      1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

        Pete -Agreed… the process is arbitrary, subjective and non-reviewable – there is no QA and no quality targets are set. It is also politicized, and relies on assessment of things the assessors simply don’t understand which ensures it is unaccountable.There is however a bright side – as it stands the system does make for good lawyering revenues thus aiding the economy of the 1% a great deal. In addition, by blocking disruption of the status quo, it stifles the seeds of recovery, and by reducing the chance of Startup success it can stop people taking silly risks.I hear you asking rhetorically – “But how else can corporate giants ensure that means of production and competitive markets are kept sufficiently inefficient to ensure super-normal profits?” – Though rhetoric; allow me to answer in kind…”Nobody knows – there is only one economy to experiment with, so why would we risk breaking such a wonderfully shiny efficient toy as our world economy and capital markets ?”

        1. Pete Griffiths


        2. thinkdisruptive


    4. fredwilson

      so true

  21. kenberger

    For Fun Friday, I’d like to thank Marc Leder and iOS 6 for providing the platforms that have impaired my 2 political opponents this week !(damn i’m posting this too late in the day)

  22. Pete Griffiths

    I like this idea.I suspect an unintended but very important side effect will be that a lot of hackers will learn a great deal about what patents really are and what the law really is, which I think will be a huge benefit to everyone. We can only have a serious debate about how to reform the system when we are all on the same page with a real understanding of what the existing system truly is rather than a lot of the popular caricatures.

  23. FlavioGomes

    What a great initiative. As a holder of a few provisional patents, I’ve been through the frustrating process of prior art examinations and so forth. Wish I had Ask Patent back then.

  24. Pete Griffiths

    The site should immediately separate out threads which are about the patent system from threads about specific patents.

    1. fredwilson

      i agree. it’s a bit of a mess right now

  25. LE

    First of all the chance of anything happening with all of this reform stuff is pretty slim. Anything substantial that is. Follow the money. [1]Why? There is money involved in, and an entire industry (not just lawyers by the way) nibbling around intellectual property. And for some it’s the main course.Look how many years it took to wean us off the tobacco industry? That was a “clearly bad thing” (what 40 to 45 years ago?) and because of all the people who make money off it (ad agencies, tobacco companies, jobs, government taxes the list is endless) it was a very slow process. Who is going to employ all those people who make their livings off of tobacco? It’s not just the farmers. It’s not just the government buying the tobacco companies and outlawing it. Etc. And that’s with something that was deadly. And obvious. Note that with pot and drugs they were quickly outlawed (Nixon). Why was that? Because it was before that ecosystem developed. [2]Now with tobacco you had a bad thing and lawyers had to be hired and paid to keep the status quo by the tobacco companies. (I remember in the 80’s a scene in LA Law where a tobacco company was sued and the counsel said something like “we’re prepared to litigate this into the 21st century” which of course they did.)But with patents and IP, the lawyers are part of the product with a vested interest. They also write the laws. Part of the product. Big difference.[1] In college I did personal injury photography (among other photo work). So lawyers hired me to go out and take pictures of accident victims and accident scenes and produce photos that would help them win their cases. Some of the cases were clearly dubious and bordered on fraud. But I took the pictures none the less. And sent an invoice and was paid (although you would be surprised how many PI attorneys have no problem making a college student beg for payment.) And if I had to earn my living that way today I would do the same even though I think it’s a bad thing what that industry does for many of the cases filed that I saw personally (slip and fall was totally ridiculous). Luckily I don’t have to do that today but if I had to feed my family I would do what I had to do. Certainly something that is clearly legal like that. (Lest I want to be part of the 47% that lives off the 53%).[2] Other examples of developed eco systems: Cell phone exposure (brain tumors), driving with cell phones. Basically anything where there are a large number of established things already going on the probability of serious reform is decreased greatly.

    1. ShanaC

      But ecosystems can also bring things down. Or other factors (eg, silent spring)

    2. fredwilson

      only a fool would try something like this.thank god there are a lot of fools out there.

      1. LE

        That’s the great thing about empowering young people!They aren’t hampered by the baggage of experience and practicality.

  26. Mark Essel

    Hey this is cool, kudos to Joel and team.

  27. Aviah Laor

    An option to upload abandoned provisional patents? every startup ever founded probably has a few. This option, if used, can provide access to documented, with formal dates, and now maybe tags and info, of a huge prior art pool- which is currently unavailable.

    1. fredwilson

      great idea!