Imagine you have invented a device that could save millions of lives around the world. But instead of profiting from the invention yourself, you decide to share the design online, to allow others to make their own version at low cost.
Two years later, a company applies for a patent on your invention. Once the application is granted, the company not only begins profiting from your device, but launches a lawsuit against you, the inventor, for infringing their patent.
This is the danger faced by researchers and developers alike, because the limits of existing content repositories means it is often a struggle for patent examiners to find what they call prior art — evidence that an invention is already known — relating to an application. That means that some applications that should be rejected are wrongly approved.
Now an open-access archive is aiming to make prior art much more accessible. Developed as a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab, Cisco, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the Prior Art Archive is an MIT-hosted database open to both patent examiners and the wider public.
"The archive has the potential to significantly improve patent quality while reducing the number of bad patents issued," says Kate Darling, a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab. Darling and Media Lab research scientist Travis Rich MS '13, PhD '17 have been involved in building the archive in collaboration with Cisco.
“The Prior Art Archive provides a method for people to better ensure that their prior art is considered by patent examiners,” Darling says. “We have worked closely with the USPTO, so the archive is well-integrated with the search tools that the examiners use.”
The archive, launched at an event at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences earlier this month, is open to universities, companies, and individuals, who can use it to upload or search for files in a range of formats, including Word documents, web pages, Excel spreadsheets, images, and videos.
“It is going to be accessible to anyone who wants to use it to upload files or to access information,” Darling says.
Cisco has already uploaded 165,000 documents into the archive, and a number of companies have committed to take part in the initiative, including Dell, Intel, AT&T, Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce. Google has also assisted the project with classification technology that will be used in the system.
"The Prior Art Archive project is an important step in addressing one of the main challenges to the current patent system — the way the Internet and the explosion of information have made it nearly impossible for examiners to review all of the prior art related to new patent applications," says Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab.
Ito references a 2012 poll of Media Lab faculty members, which found that many wanted to patent their inventions, not to commercialize them, but simply to prevent others from doing so by ensuring patent examiners had access to the prior art.
"By making information available to patent examiners in a form that's easy for them to access and search, the Prior Art Archive can significantly improve the functioning of the patent system, and enhance the quality of the patents being issued," Ito says. "This benefits academia, industry and individuals; helps prevent frivolous law suits and ambiguous risk; and encourages inventors and researchers to talk about and publish their work."
While the Prior Art Archive is hosted at MIT, in the future the database may also be replicated at other public institutions to ensure redundancy and performance.