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Hoping to be a model, IBM to put filings online

From staff and wire reports

IBM, the nation's largest patent holder, will publish its patent filings on the Web for public review as part of a new policy that the company hopes will be a model for others.

If widely adopted, the policy could help to curb the rising wave of patent disputes and patent litigation.

The policy, being announced today, includes standards like clearly identifying the corporate ownership of patents, to avoid filings that cloak authorship under the name of an individual or dummy company. It also asserts that so-called business methods alone -- broad descriptions of ideas, without technical specifics -- should not be patentable.

Carries risk

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The move by IBM does carry business risks. Patents typically take three or four years after filing to be approved by the patent office. Companies often try to keep patent applications private for as long as possible, to try to hide their technical intentions from rivals.

In Rochester, 205 patents were awarded to IBM Corp. in 2005.

"Competitors will know years ahead in some cases what fields we're working on," said John Kelly, senior vice president for technology and intellectual property at IBM "We've decided we'll take that risk and seek our competitive advantage elsewhere."

The more open approach, IBM says, is intended as a step toward improving the quality of patents issued in general because the process of public review should weed out me-too claims that are not genuine innovations.

"The larger picture here is that intellectual property is the crucial capital in a global knowledge economy," said Samuel J. Palmisano, IBM's chief executive. "If you need a dozen lawyers involved every time you want to do something, it's going to be a huge barrier. We need to make sure that intellectual property is not used as a barrier to growth in the future."

The IBM move is partly a response to what it and other technology companies regard as the slow movement by Congress toward overhauling the patent process.

A patent bill introduced last spring in the Senate, by Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, has provisions that encourage patent reviews by eliminating the requirement that applicants give consent. Yet any legislation is not likely to be enacted for another year or two.

"We were hoping that the laws would change more quickly," Kelly said. "We're not going to wait."

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Rapid advances in technology and the rise of industries like software, biotechnology and nanotechnology have resulted in a steep increase in patent applications in recent years. With limited resources, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has been overwhelmed, patent experts say.

The old system of a lone patent examiner weighing the innovative merit of a claim to originality, they say, cannot hope to cope with the surge in patent filings. A result, they note, is that many patents are granted for supposed inventions that are of dubious merit.

The avalanche of patents -- many making broad and vague claims -- has produced an environment of uncertainty, rich in opportunity for litigation and patent speculators.

The IBM policy seeks to address that problem by taking a page from the open-source style of collaboration over the Internet. Just as open-source software is improved and debugged by a far-flung network of people looking at the code and spotting flaws, IBM hopes that a similar process can improve patent quality.

"This is a creative response to that fundamental issue in the patent system," said Josh Lerner, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

IBM is not the only institution interested in using Internet collaboration to help improve the patent system. Last month, the patent office agreed to try a pilot project of soliciting outside comments on patent filings, including claims of prior art and originality.

IBM is one of several companies that have agreed to submit some patent applications for open peer review as part of the project, beginning early next year. The others include Microsoft, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Intel and Red Hat.

IBM received 2,974 patents in the United States last year.

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