Patent challenges have proven effective, which is why they're endangered

New government statistics prove that allowing advocacy groups and private individuals to challenge existing patents is a remarkably effective means of weeding out the worst of them and pruning back the overly broad.

So, naturally enough, there are corporate and political interests at work in Washington trying to muzzle patent watchdogs before they can do even more good in the public's behalf.

How's that for your tax dollars at work?

From the Electronic Frontier Foundations' blog:

Since the start of ex parte reexamination in 1981, there have been over 9,000 requests that the (Patent and Trademark Office) revisit issued patents, averaging over 500 annually in recent years. From 1981 through the end of 2007, the Office of the Patent Commissioner has granted over 90 percent of these ex parte reexamination requests. Out of the 8,000 requests that have been granted since the start of ex parte reexamination, 6,060 resulted in a narrowing of claims. In other words, the PTO grants 92% of the reexamination requests it receives, and in 3 out of 4 of those cases, the requests are having a substantial effect on the claims.

If only every arcane mechanism within the vast federal bureaucracy operated so efficiently.

You can see the Patent and Trademark Office report in its .pdf entirety here.

Just last week, the EFF's Patent Busting Project demonstrated anew the value of third-party reexamination opportunities by spearheading an effort that will result in the holder of a questionable gaming patent having to defend it against newfound evidence that plenty of "prior art" predated its issuance, which if true means it never should have seen the light of day.

EFF writes:

Sheldon F. Goldberg was awarded the illegitimate patent for online gaming systems that use tournament-style play, advertising, and real-time updates of ladder-rankings in multi-player games. Goldberg has used this bogus patent to coerce licensing fees from numerous small businesses.

In the reexamination request, EFF along with Paul Grewal and Brad Waugh of Day Casebeer Madrid & Batchelder show that the technology covered by the Goldberg patent had been widely disseminated in the public domain for years before Goldberg made his claim. The Patent Office took quick action on the request, recognizing this substantial new question of patentability less than a month after the request was filed.

Such victories and sterling statistical support aside, groups such as the EFF face being largely written out of the game if patent-reform legislation pending before the Senate passes without amendment. This "reform" as it stands will protect frivolous patents from the EFF and similar watchdogs by limiting to one year after a patent's granting the time in which it could be challenged by anyone other than those suffering direct financial harm.

Granted, such a provision wouldn't stop major gaming companies with their vast resources from challenges a patent such as the one just targeted by EFF. However, it would strip an important layer of protection from smaller business.

More to the point, however, it would reward the holders of bogus patents and siphon more coin from the pockets of consumers.

Message to lawmakers: Resist the temptation to fix what isn't broken here.

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