Taking a tip from British Science Week

13 March 2019

One of the highlights of British Science Week every year is the featured citizen project, which invites people across the country to give their time, attention and (usually) screen taps to an ongoing research project. This year is no different, with a project that’s asking members of the public to wade through historical weather reports to harvest data so that it’s presented in a usable format. Previous years’ projects include The Plastic Tide (getting people to tag images of beaches where they see litter to form a training data set for a machine learning algorithm) and Worm Watch Lab (tracking the egg-laying behaviour of nematode worms). These projects not only provide useful data sets that are used for real world research, but also educate the citizen scientists getting involved.

This creative way of getting the public actively engaged in research got me thinking – could a similar approach be applied to patent searching? Could the power of the crowd be used to lighten the burden on patent examiners? And on the other side, could a similar project be used to educate the public about patents and intellectual property?

It turns out that I’m not the first person to have this idea (which further confirms that my choice to pursue a career as a patent attorney, rather than an inventor, was the right one). Back in 2000, Bounty Quest offered rewards for members of the public who could find prior art for a particular patent or patent application. The website brought together “bounty posters” who could list a particular patent or patent application that they wished to invalidate along with an associated bounty, and “bounty hunters”, who would scour the internet (and local libraries) for relevant prior art. The website also provided hunters with a brief introduction to the patent system, explaining that an invention must be novel, non-obvious and have utility to be granted a patent in the US.

With bounties in the range of tens of thousands of dollars, it was a potentially lucrative income stream for the diligent bounty hunter. However, from a brief review of what’s left of the Bounty Quest website on the Wayback Machine, it seems that the range of prior art submitted by bounty hunters against any particular patent or application was highly variable, with the prior art cited against an “Amazon 1-Click Shopping patent” ranging from published US patent applications to episodes of Star Trek.

It’s not clear what happened to Bounty Quest, but the idea of crowd sourcing patent searching lives on today, with crowd-sourced searching being used to inform patent litigation, licensing and IP strategy.

Monique Henson

Monique Henson

Trainee Patent Attorney

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