IBM to open up patent filings

IBM has decided to post patent applications online to share innovation but also reduce the risk of patent infringement lawsuits.

IBM is going to publish its patent applications online to share their details with the world and, perhaps, reduce the flood of patent infringement lawsuits.

IBM made the change in corporate policy public Tuesday after a two-month long research project this summer involving experts in law, academia, government and technology.

The change in policy "is designed to foster integrity, a healthier environment for innovation, and mutual respect for intellectual property rights," IBM said in a statement. It encouraged others in "the patent community" to follow its example.

IBM believes that if it is clear and up-front about what technology it is patenting, such disclosure should reduce the risk of patent disputes and lower the chance that its innovations will infringe the patents of others. In this era of technology innovations, the number of patent filings have swelled and government agencies, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, have trouble keeping up with applications.

"Those systems now deal with growing numbers of questionable patent applications and patent lawsuits," IBM stated.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office makes filings public 18 months after they are submitted and offers only a two-month window for limited public comment on the patents, said IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind, at the technology company's headquarters in New York. Under IBM's new policy, the company will establish a six-month window for public comments and encourage more active dialogue about the patents. This will put others on notice of what IBM is planning to patent, but also give other inventors the opportunity to tell IBM that they already hold a patent on what IBM proposes to patent, Fishkind said.

"This is a way to get more people involved, like in an open source community," he said.

The policy is intended to make IBM patent applicants responsible for the quality and clarity of their applications and to clearly establish ownership of the patent. IBM also contends that business methods that don't have particular technical merit should not be patentable.

The patent policy was developed by a panel of about 50 experts working throughout May and June in a collaborative process conducted on an online wiki. A wiki is a Web site at which several people have the ability to write and edit a document online.

"The intellectual property regime in this country is not functioning in the best interests of society and of innovators," said Steven Weber, a professor of international studies and political science at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the group that developed the policy.

The volume of patent litigation has grown with the growth of new technology innovations and the tendency of courts to expand the definition of what can be patented, Weber said. There have also been instances in which companies have used vague patent language as leverage to sue others for patent infringement and reap millions in settlements.

If the patent process is more open, the risk of litigation will be lower, which saves all parties money spent on litigating patent disputes.

"Litigation is a dead weight loss" on everybody, Weber said.

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