Electronic patent databases invent difficulties

By Paul Marks It is a startling idea for a new machine, one that could revolutionise transportation. Take a circular frame of strong lightweight composite material, reinforce it with radial spokes and make a hole in the centre that can accommodate a shaft or axle. Then patent the concept before some other bright inventor steals it. If reinventing the wheel is ridiculous, being able to patent such a device is even more so. Yet that is what happened in 2001 when patent attorney John Keogh won a patent for a “circular transportation facilitation device” from the patent office in Australia. He did this to flag up deficiencies in the country’s new patenting system. But the problem is an international one – and as patent offices are moving from paper records to digital storage it is getting worse, not better. Striking deficiencies in the way patent offices around the world are digitising their information means that patents could be wrongly granted on thousands of inventions, says Willem Geert Lagemaat, president of PatCom, the European association of patent information providers. In the latest edition of the journal World Patent Information (vol 27, p 27) he warns that even though most online patent archives are incomplete, parts of the paper-based collections that preceded them are being destroyed. Unless the authorities plug these gaps, the patenting process will descend into farce. To qualify for a patent, an invention is supposed to be new, useful and non-obvious. Patent examiners establish novelty by making sure the invention is not either already patented, or in use commercially without patent protection. They do this by checking for so-called “prior art” in existing patent applications and granted patents, as well as looking for non-patent prior art in sources such as trade magazines, websites and journals. However, examiners – particularly in the US – are often criticised for not checking thoroughly enough for non-patent prior art. It might seem that the plethora of free online patent databases that now exist should make it easier to check the relevant patent documents, but Lagemaat says this is not so. Univentio, the patent-information company he runs in the Netherlands, has discovered that Espacenet, the European online patent database, is missing 322,000 UK Patent Office documents, plus 186,000 and 17,000 patents respectively from the French and German offices. Some of the missing documents were granted as recently as 2004. “The online archives have gaps simply because the documents were not scanned, either because they were missing or there was an error digitising them,” Lagemaat says. The Leeds Patent Information Unit, the largest regional library of its type in the UK, was unable to relocate a large percentage of its hard-copy collection when it moved offices in 2004, says Lagemaat, while the Dutch patent office has already begun disposing of its hard copies of patents. With many libraries now disposing of at least part of their paper archives to save money, it is no longer possible to guarantee that a paper version of every patent exists. Patent collections can occupy thousands of metres of shelving – especially with gene sequence-related patents now running to hundreds of pages each – so storage costs are high. Yet they provide very little return. People use the web to do the bulk of their patent research for free and only contact archives for the missing patents. “Such low-volume orders do not cover an archive’s expenses,” Lagemaat says. The UK Patent Office says it has “no immediate plans” to dispose of its paper archive and is working with the European Patent Office to extend the electronic archive with scanned images of British patents. But as Lagemaat points out, images are of little use in prior-art searches because the text within them is not searchable. Of the 45 million patent documents that have been digitised worldwide so far, only 15 million have a full text version, and not one patent office has a searchable full-text version of all its publications. Greg Aharonian, a patent expert based in San Francisco, also believes the patent system is failing. “There are problems with the patent databases, and given the ongoing problems with lack of searches for non-patent prior art, this will contribute to a further drop in quality of granted patents,
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