When an inventor is granted a patent he enters into a contract with society: In return for a 20-year monopoly on the exploitation of his invention, the patentee is required to provide full details of the invention, and an explanation of how it works.
This information is then made available to the public by the patent office so that others can learn from the invention. The aim, says Wolfgang Pilch, principal director for patent information at The European Patent Office (EPO), is to create a "positive feedback mechanism." As he explains, "The published information helps stimulate new R&D, and so encourages further innovation."
How is this information made available to the public? Historically, it was accessed in the reading room of the issuing patent office....
For entrepreneurs...the problem was a good market opportunity, and wily individuals began to collect, translate and aggregate information from the different national patent offices, which they then sold on to other patent offices, to patent attorneys, and to private industry....In short, distributing public domain information turned out to be a very lucrative business, and access to patent databases was soon attracting premium rates.
When the Internet became widely available in the mid-1990s, however, patent offices began to distribute this information online themselves, a development that led to growing conflict between the PTOs and commercial vendors, as the latter faced a classic distinermediation dilemma.
Nowhere has this conflict been more visible than in the increasingly bitter debate over the actions of the EPO, which decided not to restrict itself to distributing its own patent data, but information from other patent offices too. Consequently, today the EPO's online service — esp@cent — contains around 63,000,000 patent records, and 50 million images of patent documents....
The EPO maintains that it is justified in doing this, since it has a duty make patent data available. As Pilch puts, "It is my sincere belief that the patent offices have an obligation to serve the public and to ensure that information on patents is readily available to all." ...
Those who follow the debate about Open Access to the scholarly literature may find some interesting parallels....
Peter Suber at 10/25/2007 12:08:00 PM.
The open access movement:
Putting peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly literature
on the internet. Making it available free of charge and
free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.
Removing the barriers to serious research.