Web site offers cash bounties for patent information

A Boston-based start-up yesterday launched a Web site through which companies can offer cash bounties in an effort to find information that could help prove or discredit patent applications, joining an emerging group of online ventures that are targeting patent-related issues.

BountyQuest Corp. said its Web site is aimed at businesses trying to locate so-called "prior art" that can show whether a patent has already been issued for an invention or an idea. The lure for people who may have that information: cash rewards that start at $10,000 and could top $1 million, depending on the value of the data.

The bounty fees would be paid by the companies that are seeking the prior-art information, said BountyQuest CEO Charles Cella. He added that BountyQuest would get revenue by charging listing fees to the companies, which would be able to post their requests for information anonymously.

BountyQuest has two well-known financial backers: Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of online retailer Amazon.com Inc., and Tim O'Reilly, the founder of Sebastopol, Calif.-based computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates Inc. Ironically, Bezos and O'Reilly earlier this year were publicly at odds over a patent case that eventually was won by Seattle-based Amazon.

In that case, Amazon applied for and won a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for providing customers with "one-click shopping" on its Web site. O'Reilly and others had argued that the online retailer didn't invent the process but was merely the first company to actually register such a patent (see story).

And the dispute isn't completely dead, despite the status of Bezos and O'Reilly as joint investors in BountyQuest. O'Reilly has posted one of the first bounty offers on the new Web site, promising a $10,000 reward to anyone who can provide proof that can overturn Amazon's patent. "I still think the one-click patent is not a good patent," he said in an interview.

The one-click case is a good example of how the current patent system is overloaded and underperforming, O'Reilly claimed. The government's patent investigators don't have the time or resources to adequately research applications because of the volume of requests, he said. But a Web site such as BountyQuest's "gives people an incentive to do the digging" to find relevant information requested by companies, O'Reilly added.

Some of the other rewards posted on the site include $50,000 for detailed information relating to a patent for reformulated gasoline that could reduce auto emissions and a $40,000 reward being offered for knowledge that could help resolve a patent issue related to a system for downloading video and audio data.

Len Rubin, an intellectual property attorney at Gordon & Glickson LLC in Chicago, called the new Web site "an interesting innovation" in the patent law field. Normally, prior-art research is done by law firms or other hired guns, but Rubin said the research often can only go so far because of the voluminous amount of information that needs to be examined.

Enlisting thousands of extra researchers via the Web could help plaintiffs or defendants in patent-infringement cases as well as companies that are checking the legal landscape before filing applications, Rubin said. "If they don't come up with anything, you could at least take some comfort in that and claim your patent is valid," he noted.

Chris Silva, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said bounties of $10,000 and more could be "a small price to pay for a company to get this kind of work done, basically pro bono, by whoever decides they want to take on the challenge."

BountyQuest joins a small group of Web sites targeting patent-related issues, said Derrick Dominique, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc., also in Framingham. For example, PatentAuction.com in Hunt, Texas, offers online auctions of patents and copyrights, while Information Holdings Inc. in New York has developed an online patent exchange called Patex.

But even O'Reilly said he remains cautious about BountyQuest's future. "The [business] model is unproven," he said. "Will it work? We're not sure."

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