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IBM putting patent apps online

Janet Babin Sep 26, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s easy to think the path to business success is all about who can make the cheapest widgets the fastest. And to some extent that’s true. But in a way what matters most is who had the idea. And who had it first. Welcome to the patent system. U.S. patent applications have almost doubled in the past ten years. Doesn’t necessarily mean there are better business ideas out there. Some say all those applications just lead to lawsuits that clog the system instead of helping it along. Today, one company that’s benefited greatly from its patents is taking a step to try to fix that. From the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio, here’s Janet Babin.

JANET BABIN: IBM’s new policy will make all of its patent applications public after 18 months. Big Blue will also allow staffers to spend company time peer-reviewing patent applications. IBM attorney Dave Kappos says the new policy will improve patent quality:

DAVE KAPPOS:“We’re trying to set a new bar, a higher bar, for the management of patents.”

UC Berkeley professor Pam Samuelson says making all its patent applications public could put IBM’s proprietary ideas at risk, but she applauds the company for taking a chance:

PAM SAMUELSON:“IBM is making a commitment to transparency and I think trying to set a good example.”

BEN KLEMENS:“It’s a diversionary tactic.”

That’s visiting Brookings Institution scholar Ben Klemens. He says IBM fails to address the fundamental problem with the patent system — that software patents are too numerous, and too comprehensive. He calls the new policy self serving:

KLEMENS:“I believe it’s part of their overall campaign to keep software patents running as long as possible, and basically show that they’re being good players in the patenting industry.”

This year the U.S. patent office has a backlog of 700,000 applications. Big Blue’s new policy is part of a pilot program from the government to trim application waiting time. Microsoft, GE, Hewlett-Packard and others will also participate in the peer review of patent applications. In exchange, their applications move to the top of the heap.

In Durham, N.C., I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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