A Code Catalog for Software Patents

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On Jan. 10, the Patent & Trademark Office announced a sweeping initiative to do try help developers avoid patent disputes. The agency will team up with IBM, the Open Source Development Lab, Novell, Red Hat, and SourceForge.net, which are putting aside their philosophical differences over whether software should be patented at all. (Patenting what is basically an algorithm — an equation or a means of solving a problem — is anathema to many programmers.) Also at the table: Google, Eclipse, the Software Freedom Law Center, and a smattering of intellectual-property lawyers and scholars. Next month, the team will assemble at the PTO’s cathedral-like headquarters in Alexandria, Va., to begin development of a giant, searchable repository of open-source software.

The idea: Create a catalog of existing source code that patent examiners can use to check against software patent applications. The goal: Prevent the agency from unwittingly turning over the exclusive rights to common knowledge. The effect should be a reduction in overlapping claims and lawsuits — and, ideally, a boost to innovation.

“There’s a lot of concern about software patents,” says John Doll, commissioner for patents. “There’s a huge amount of source code out there, but it’s not in a usable form that examiners can access.”