The open community model of Wikipedia.org and open source software has worked well so far for those venues, so why not try it with patents?
A new service called Wikipatents.com, now in beta, has end users serving as the quality control mechanism for tracking a patent scene that has become increasingly trickier to navigate as enterprises incorporate more and more open source software into the data center.
Case in point: the rise of patent lawsuits like the one filed by FireStar Software Inc. in July regarding a tool called Hibernate. The lawsuit alleges that JBoss' Hibernate 3.0 infringes on a FireStar patent for linking relational databases with object-oriented software. Hibernate is an object-relational mapping tool for Java that's part of the JBoss Enterprise Middleware System.
Similar services already exist from Waltham, Mass.-based Black Duck Inc. and San Francisco-based Palamida Inc.. for copyrights, but wikipatents.com forgoes professional services from a vendor in lieu of a will-of-the-people approach that many in the open source community might find appealing, especially given cases like Hibernate and the now infamous SCO/IBM trial that has continued to make headlines since it was filed in 2003.
"[The announcement] from wikipatents.com further illustrates the growing recognition in the marketplace that the patent system has become overloaded and is being abused in the process," said Clay Ryder, president of The Sageza Group Inc., in Union City, Calif.
"The patent process has become burdened by an onslaught of new innovations, some mired in deep technological black magic, some contested and some flat-out silly. Patent examiners, and the economy as whole, need new tools to assist in providing the valuable service of patent registration and examination," he said.
And while some of the most popular patents on the site might be for "mid-grip high-power pistols" -- reflecting a universal approach to all patents and not just technology-based ones -- Ryder said the wiki-based nature was another example of how third parties have created discussion points for which they can aggregate comments and supporting documentation regarding current patents.
The wikipatents.com model can be seen as an unofficial extension of the Open Source Software as Prior Art efforts, which was launched in January as a project supported by the Open Source Development Labs, IBM, Novell Inc., Red Hat Inc. and SourceForge.net. However, wikipatents.com is not limited to a discussion of open source prior art, but rather the much broader scope of patents in general, Ryder said.
In that regard, the site gives users the ability to search by patent number, read/write a patent's description in laypersons' terms, rate a patent's technical accuracy, vote on a reasonable royalty value and provide licensing information and/or availability all in a wiki-based format.
Ryder did have a few qualms about the star-based ratings system of wikipatents.com. "While such a visual representation can be helpful in quickly gleaning relevant information, it does not in and of itself come near the depth of technical review warranted in the patent-granting process."
Whatever the merits of wikipatents.com's ratings system, at least the open source and wiki-based communities are becoming aware of the patent process, Ryder said.
"The more eyes out there viewing patents the better," Ryder said. "The higher the awareness and the higher the participation by the community at large means a higher likelihood of patent process reform, and thus the higher overall value of the patents themselves."