On October 18, BountyQuest Corp., a Boston-based start-up, launched a new Web site that has fired the imagination of professional patent searchers. Via the new site (http://www.bountyquest.com), interested companies ("Bounty Posters") offer a minimum $10,000 reward to the first "Bounty Hunter" who can provide the prior art (patents or published references) that will invalidate the patent that the Poster wants to kill.
BountyQuest claims that, by providing an incentive for Hunters to find this prior art, the company is helping to strengthen the U.S. patent system. Interestingly, BountyQuest says its service will help verify good patents as well as invalidate bad ones, although the Web site doesn't mention a mechanism for paying Hunters who help verify the good ones (presumably by finding prior art that's close, but not close enough to invalidate them).
The BountyQuest system is fairly straightforward. Bounty Posters submit the numbers of the patents they want to invalidate (currently, this only involves U.S. patents), along with some descriptions of the technology. The site posts all active bounties. Hunters register with BountyQuest, and when they find art relevant to the subject of a bounty, they submit it via BountyQuest's online form. BountyQuest reviews the submission, and if the Hunter is the first person to submit a "completely correct response," he or she gets the bounty. All of which leads one to wonder: What constitutes a "completely correct response"?
Some basics: The prior art must be publicly available information—you can't submit your company's trade secrets, internal reports, or lab notebooks to win a bounty. Both Posters and Hunters are promised anonymity, unless they give written permission to make their names available. BountyQuest holds the bounty money in escrow and pays a portion of it (while keeping the rest) to the first Hunter who submits prior art that matches all particulars of the patent in question. And BountyQuest is serious about the users' agreement that both Posters and Hunters must sign—it's a "legally binding document" that's 12 pages long.
From the patent searcher's viewpoint, a Hunter on BountyQuest essentially does patent validity searches on a contingency basis—sort of a patent lotto. In order to be paid, you must find prior art that can invalidate the patent for lack of novelty, and you must be the first Hunter to find it. Although this looks like a possible retirement job for power patent searchers, the rewards aren't all that great. Almost all the bounties currently on the site are worth only the minimum amount of $10,000. (Not a huge reward, considering that some of these patents support businesses worth hundreds of millions.) And you'll probably have to invest time and patent search expenses on quite a few of these postings before you actually win a bounty. Considering that a normal validity search can cost thousands of dollars whether or not you find the killing reference, the Posters would seem to have the upper hand here.
The BountyQuest people, interestingly enough, seem unaware of the existence of professional patent searchers. With all the press releases and newspaper articles the company published within a day or two of its launch, it didn't post anything on the Patent Information Users Group (PIUG) discussion list. Apparently, BountyQuest staff thinks that scientists and engineers working in the field can find what's needed from their own knowledge of what has been published. According to the Web site, "The collective minds of tens of thousands of researchers can yield more useful information in one day, than hand searching at the USPTO [United States Patent and Trademark Office] can deliver in a month."
It also appears BountyQuest doesn't believe that Hunters need to have much familiarity with patents, as the site provides a great deal of information to help educate them. In fact, it has quite the useful compilation of patent data. BountyQuest offers a tutorial on the concepts of patent validity, what constitutes prior art, and where to look for it. Its Patent Information Center provides all sorts of patent lore, including a fascinating history of U.S. patents. (I'll cover this information in more detail in an upcoming Better Mousetrap column in Searcher magazine.)
So far, BountyQuest is offering a limited number of bounties. Most of them fall into two major categories: biotech/pharmaceuticals (including the patents for Viagra and Minoxidil) and software/Internet/business methods (including Amazon.com's "1-Click" patent and Priceline.com's reverse auction patent). One of the investors in this new company is Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com and an inventor of the 1-Click patent. Another is Tim O'Reilly, head of O'Reilly & Associates, publisher of books on software and the Internet. (By the way, O'Reilly posted the bounty for Amazon's 1-Click patent.)
It remains to be seen whether this site will succeed. If it does, it will certainly be profitable for its owners and investors—they'll reap a $2,500 fee for every bounty listed and a minimum of $4,000 for every bounty claimed. If all goes well, BountyQuest plans to expand beyond patent-infringement information to other hard-to-find information, using the power of the Internet to link the people who need it with the people who can find it.