Web Site Offers Bounties For Patent Information

BountyQuest aims to help firms prove or discredit patent applications

A Boston-based start-up company has launched a Web site through which firms can offer cash bounties as a means of finding information that could help prove or discredit patent applications.

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 idea. The lure for people who may have that information: cash rewards that start at $10,000 and could be as much as $1 million, depending on the data's value.

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

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

In that case, Amazon applied for and won a patent 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.

And the dispute isn't dead, despite the status of Bezos and O'Reilly as joint investors in BountyQuest. O'Reilly has posted one of the first bounties on the new Web site, promising $10,000 to anyone who provides information that can overturn Amazon's patent.

Cautious Outlook

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. Prior-art research is typically conducted by law firms or other hired guns, but Rubin said the research is often stymied because of the large amount of information that needs to be examined.

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."

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

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

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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