IP bounty hunters? – using social networks to invalidate IP rights

Relying on a network of people (a social network) can be an incredibly powerful, knowledgeable and creative way to undertake extremely complex tasks.  Anyone even vaguely familiar with ‘web 2.0’ knows this at least intuitively.  For an easy example, think about Amazon’s incredible (and ever expanding) database of comments and reviews and correlations between seemingly different items bought by each user.

So here’s an interesting proposition – to invalidate a patent, trade mark or registered design (design patent), consider utilising a social network to leverage your chances.  The peer-to-patent project is a first example of this in the examination phase and patentlens is making inroads.  

A Company which needs to invalidate an IP right could create a contest or even a series of awards or bounties for thosewho come forward with valuable evidence, arguments and (in the case of patents), prior art.  This strategy would be equally useful for large companies on the wrong end of a license-enforcement (some would say ‘patent troll’) suit, as well as, for example, generic pharmaceutical companies seeking earlier market entry.  Such a strategy could not only turn up interesting documents, but potentially unpublished facts which could also affect validity.  

This strategy won’t work in every situation, for example:

  • One would have to very carefully think up the communication strategy and rules around the awards
  • There’s a real risk that running the program would divert too much management time.  
  • Telling the world (or at least the network) that you would like help with your arguments is sometimes a very bad idea.  However, even this could be mitigated in certain circumstances.

Under what circumstances do you think such a strategy would be really useful?

3 Comments on “IP bounty hunters? – using social networks to invalidate IP rights

  1. Duncan, this all sounds vaguely familiar. 
    I recall some (5??) years ago there was a site, “patentbuster.com” as I remember it, that did precisely what you talk of.  Companies with potential infringement issues would post a target patent seeking invalidating art from the big wide world of the internet population.  A bounty would be posted (I believe sums in the USD 6-figure range were common) for art that enabled a strong invalidation case.  Though I did not have personal experience with the site I had a staff member at the time who was quite a whiz with prior art searching who used this as a basis for an after-hours hobby. Ttoday I went looking for the site, but it seems to be “off-air” and to have disappeared without a trace (ie no Google hits of references to the site) so I may have the name wrong. 
    I wonder if any of your readers based in the US might recall more on this and can throw light on what happened to the site.
    According to Science Mag 27 Oct 2000 (290,(5492) p667) a similar concept was launched at that time under bountyquest.com  I note that the link that they provided at that time now takes you to a bizarre site that can’t decide if it’s selling you cheap DVD’s or scamming the role of IPR’s!  It appears that the original business model didn’t work for them either.  Understanding the “why” of this would be most enlightening.  Conspiratory theorists need not reply!
    In a similar, but more “community spirited” vein there is also the EFF Patent Busting “Ten Most Wanted” project.  This appears to be the Open Source community’s thrust at opening the operating space wider through killing granted wide impact patents in their field of interest (refer http://www.eff.org/patent/wanted/  )
    So Duncan, I guess the idea has industrial applicability, but no novelty nor inventiveness!
    AJM  NZ

  2. Hi Allan, thanks for your great comments.It seems as though no one has yet figured out how make the business model work.  Perhaps the economic incentives aren’t there yet so that people keep using the more traditional route – a high quality searching firm on a fee per search / retainer (etc) basis.  Though perhaps this is only a matter of the size of the bounty (and some certainty around the rules of the competition).Setting aside the “searching for a bounty” side of the equation for a minute…On reflection, given that the validity of a patent is usually not looked at seriously until well into it’s life, one would expect that those who were aware of relevant prior art have either independently looked for it for the same reason (and are unwilling to share) or have to have a good memory to recall it – and be in the right place to be able to suggest it at the bounty hunter forum.  This latter group is actually a series of highly specialised groups of experts in each field.Apart from worthwhile bounties, and clear rules, one of the key issues seems to be getting the right audience(s) for the forum.  I wonder whether a combination of online and face to face fora would work better.  For example, such a forum may be added as a thinktank session at the end of a conference in the specialty of interest…

  3. Hello again Duncan … we must stop meeting like this!
    As regards the business model, as with any successful business model the key to cracking it is getting to the nub of the stakeholder’s motivation, and incentivising that.
    Strikes me that the  likely motivators for people responding to a site of the type you are describing are (top-of-mind dump):

    GREED.  incentivise through MEANINGFUL financial reward.
    INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE (ie ego):   Incentivise through PEER RECOGNITION
    PHILOSOPHY (particularly anti-IPR or anti-big-business):  Incentivise by providing STATUS in that philosophical community.
    Motivator 1 is the one that drives scammers, Motivator 2 is the one that drives virus creators, Motivator 3 is the one that drives the Open Source brigade – and these are all thriving because their motivational needs are met.
    Users of a patent bust site (ie companies with a problem) likely come to this means of resolution as a last resort.  I say this because patent infringement risk is something that you try to avoid publicity on.  The consequence of that is that it significantly raises the challenge of finding something useful.  hat plays differently to each of the motivations.  If you are a “Type 1” you need more reward because your effort and risk of failure both went up.  “Type 2” respondents however are highly motivated by that aspect, so make it clear that you think it is unbreakable and you’ll have them swarming like bees around the problem PROVIDED any success is trumpeted to their fellow “Type 2″‘s.  “Type 3” motivation is hard to feed if you are a corporate, because you are the arch-enemy to most of this hoody-wearing brigade.
    So crack the aspect of these disparate reward needs for the Patent Busting business model and you might have a go-er
    AJM NZ

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