At one of the Accelerating Change conferences I saw Prof. Beth Noveck introduce for the first time her ideas on improving patents via peer review. Now, the nanotechnology field will be envious to hear that another field has been chosen to carry out the first pilot project — software, as reported in IEEE Spectrum:

The patent examination process has been a closed process without public participation except to the most limited extents.

It’s a new idea to open up the process and create a structured program on the Web that would allow people to provide input on the basis of expertise…

The advantages to participate if you’re an inventor are that the USPTO will allow your invention to get a better examination because the public is participating and to have the application reviewed faster. All applications that go through the pilot will be reviewed out of turn—in other words they’ll be taken first—and if you think about the fact that there’s now over a four-year backlog in this area of patents to get examined, being examined out of turn and having one’s invention reviewed in the course of less than a year, which is what the commitment is, I think is a tremendous incentive to participate.

That is indeed a strong incentive. The nanotechnology patent area has similar delays, I’ve heard. So when can we give this a shot too? Molecule geeks can benefit from open source-style processes just as much as data geeks. If this catches on, perhaps we can then start to ask the bigger, harder questions, such as: should all fundamental, tax-funded research be patented? Might the public benefit more from sharing than from monopolies, at least in some cases? Just asking! —Christine