IBM Aims to Improve Patents

The computer giant says it's working with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Open Source Development Labs and others to strengthen patent applications.

IBM wants to open the doors to better patents.

The Armonk, N.Y., computing giant, which received the most U.S. patents in 2005, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, says its working with the USPTO, the Open Source Development Labs, academics and open-source software developers to improve the quality of patents, in part by improving the way patent applications are vetted.

Disputes over patent claims have made headlines of late in the legal battle between BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. and NTP Inc., in which NTP is suing RIM for patent infringement. Subjecting software patent claims to a broader review using a larger database of open-source software code and the knowledge of developers would cut down on the possibility of overlapping claims, potentially reducing litigation and encouraging more innovation, IBM officials said.

/zimages/1/28571.gifThe USPTO has indicated that it will reject the patents at the heart of the RIM-NTP lawsuit. Click here to read more.

Thus IBM, the USPTO and the OSDL, a global consortium dedicated to accelerating the adoption of the Linux operating system, are working on a three-part initiative to help software makers secure stronger claims to their work, IBM officials said in a statement.

The initiative will include developing Open Patent Review, a program designed to encourage community review of patent applications. The program would offer feedback to the patent office on things such as existing prior art, or previously disclosed information, that may not have been discovered by the applicant or USPTO examiners. The program will allow visitors to the USPTO Web site to sign up to receive regular e-mails that include links to newly published patent applications in their areas of interest, IBM officials said.

The initiative will also work to establish open-source software itself as prior art against patent applications. To get there, the OSDL and IBM plan to work with Novell Inc., Red Hat Inc. and VA Software Corp.s to develop a system that stores source code in an electronically searchable format. This code repository, which IBM officials said will satisfy legal requirements to qualify as prior art, would allow patent examiners and the public to use open-source code to ensure that patents are issued only for new software inventions, according to the IBM statement.

The group will also work to create a Patent Quality Index, a numeric index to assess the quality of patents and patent applications, which will be available to the public, IBM officials said.

IBM, ODSL and others are working on the three-part initiative because they believe patents should be granted only for ideas that embody a genuine step forward, said John E. Kelly III, IBMs senior vice president of Technology and Intellectual Property, in the statement.

"Raising the quality of patents will encourage continued investment in research and development by individual inventors, small businesses, corporations and academic institutions while helping to prevent over-protection that works against innovation and the public interest," Kelly said.

As its next step in the three-part project, the USPTO plans to gather public opinion. The office will hold a public meeting on the project at its offices in Alexandria, Va., on Feb. 16, according to the IBM statement.

The subjects of open-source patents and open-source-friendly patent applications have been widely discussed of late.

Companies such as Sun Microsystems Inc. have opened some of their patents to the open-source community to one degree or another.

However, experts have said there has been no single, reliable site where developers can access information about open-source software patents.

Thus, in a prior effort, the OSDL called for an online patent reference library, its Patent Commons Project, as a central location for open-source-friendly software patents and patent pledges.

That site was launched in November.

Meanwhile, the USPTO on Tuesday said IBM was awarded the largest number of U.S. patents in 2005, receiving 2,941. IBM said it was the eighth consecutive year it has received more than 2,000 U.S. patents. The rest of the top five included Canon Inc., which was awarded 1,828 patents; Hewlett-Packard Co. with 1,797; Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., which gained 1,688 and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., which was awarded 1,641. Intel Corp. finished sixth with 1,549 patents, according to the USPTO.

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