USPTO Delivers big time: Free, fast, timely public access to the best patent data

At Cambia, to create the Patent Lens ( we’ve probably spent USD 300,000 or more over the years to acquire and serve to the public the full text and images of  US Patents and Applications.   This is a pretty heavy load for a small non-profit, but through commitment by our supporters, we’ve managed.

When the Open Government Directive was announced in the current administration, I was hopeful that the US Patent and Trademark Office would begin to make its bulk patent data available at no cost, and as well, create a way for the public to access the important ancillary data relating to status and prosecution history, called ‘PAIR’.

When USPTO announced the unusual partnership with Google to do just that, I was both pleased and a bit nervous that this was creating a cozy relationship with one big player in the information space, reminiscent of the relationships that EPO has had with ‘added value’ information gatekeepers.   I was also a bit skeptical that it would work and would deliver.

What happened in the last months since Jon Orwant at Google began hosting the bulk data was remarkable.    But it was incomplete.   The most valuable information (financially and often technically) is the most recent set of documents – the applications and grants published this year – and ideally this minute.      And these were lacking.    Until a couple of weeks ago, there was essentially no 2010 data on the Google bulk site.

I was concerned by this, and spent some serious time and bandwidth in conversations and emails with people in the Government and at Google, and in the last couple of weeks, the responsiveness of the USPTO, Google, the Commerce Department and the Office of Science & Technology Policy  has been nothing short of spectacular.   In fact, the whole experience made me realize that ‘Open Government’ is a passion and a mission to many of its practitioners in Washington and Virginia, and that there are some real heroes in the system who should get recognition.

In short, they made very courageous decision to provide to the public the highest margin data that they currently sell, at no cost, and on time.  And then they actually did it.

This is no small thing.

The USPTO is expected to raise the revenue from its services to pay for those services.   This should be the subject of further discussion, no doubt, as it is a pernicious way to trap an agency into the status quo.  And one way to raise that revenue is to charge for the most valuable and difficult-to-provide data – the comprehensive ‘Redbook’ data from 2010.     Redbook refers to a quality XML format that also includes the chemical structures, DNA sequences, drawings, mathematical equations and so on, that comprise a machine readable comprehensive disclosure or ‘teaching’.   Redbook is the Gold standard.  The TIFF images of the actual applications and grants are also critical files.     What many don’t know is that the USPTO charges quite a bit for these.   For the US Grants in Redbook format for 2010, they charge 39,000.  For the aggregate 2010 files, Patents, Applications and images, it sets you back USD 94,100.  And yes, each year its about this much.

So imagine the courage and leadership necessary for David Kappos and his team to look at the revenue from selling these products, and to say ‘No, that’s wrong.  The Presidents Open Government Directive makes it clear that these should be public goods, available without fee or favor; bundle them into the bulk downloads’.

Breaking free from institutional capture by revenue stream is amongst the most difficult and bold leadership decisions anyone responsible for an enterprise can make.

So hats off to the whole team at USPTO, to Joey Hutcherson at Commerce and to the Deputy  CTO in OSTP, Beth Noveck, and to Jon Orwant and his team at Google.    Real good citizens!

I attach the letter I sent to David Kappos to thank USPTO.  They are always getting beat up in the blogosphere, but there’s courage there and commitment.   If anyone out there reads this (and I am always feeling like I’m singing in the shower) send them a nice note.


Mr David Kappos

Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and

Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

P.O. Box 1450

Alexandria, VA 22313-1450

November 1, 2010

Dear David,

I am writing to commend and congratulate the USPTO for its exceptional and wholly successful initiative to make comprehensive, timely and highest-quality text and data from US Patent Applications and Grants available to the public, in bulk and at no charge.

We also applaud the remarkable progress towards providing other critical data, such as PAIR, Assignment data and Petitions.

The public spirit and professionalism exemplified by these efforts admirably reflect the aspirations and intentions of the Open Government Directive.

It also reflects very well on your partner in this effort, Google, and its willingness and capability to host this bulk data without favor or fee, and to work with USPTO to overcome technical challenges.

In times of economic and environmental crisis, creating a more efficient, productive, transparent and inclusive innovation system is of paramount importance.

The fundamental and legitimate driver of the patent system is to advance the public good.    This is served by balancing the responsibility to explicitly share the teachings of inventions with the public,  with the limited right to exclude others, determined by a judicious and careful examination by the USPTO.    Responsibility must always go hand-in-hand with rights.

While rights are overseen by administrative procedure, the courts, and by competition and antitrust law, the responsibility side of the equation has often languished.

We recognize the unprecedented pressures under which the USPTO operates caused by the number, the volume and the scientific, technical, informational, business and legal complexity of the patent applications and patents it must administer.   We understand how this overwhelming load has made it difficult to meet the full spectrum of responsibilities and expectations to your own or to the public’s desired standard.

Now to its great credit, the USPTO has made a great leap towards ensuring that the teachings of US Patent Applications and Grants are shared effectively and openly.

This in turn will yield great dividends in engaging the public to use these disclosures to enable social and economic progress, and in so doing, finding the value and honing the role of the USPTO in innovation.

If we are to be an engaged and democratic society, the ball is now in our court.     Together we need to make the innovation system more efficient, effective and fair.

Cambia is a globally operating non-profit that has worked for over two decades to change the demographics of innovation, to broaden the scope and diversity of problem solvers and the problems solved, and to enable informed decisions around science- and technology-enabled innovation.

We have done this through CambiaLabs, which has designed, developed and delivered biological enabling technologies with extensive use of the patent system;  Patent Lens, which for over a  decade has provided free, open full text search and analysis of patents worldwide, and shed light on their meaning in open patent landscapes; and through BIOS (Biological Innovation for Open Society, aka Biological Open Source), which explores new cooperative tools, norms and legal instruments for increasing efficiency in life sciences-enabled innovation through improved sharing and distribution of pre-competitive platforms.

In 2009, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Lemelson Foundation, we and our colleagues at the Queensland University of Technology began work to integrate these lessons through creation of an open, global facility called the Initiative for Open Innovation (IOI), to promote and enable public ‘Innovation Cartography’.  The IOI benefits from contributions from an extraordinary International Advisory Council which we would be honored for you to join.

IOI strives to make the innovation system more efficient, transparent, inclusive and fair.    We want to enable more people to make better decisions, informed by evidence, but guided by imagination.

We want to enable ‘cartography’ of the innovation landscape, so navigation through from idea to product or service and back again can rapidly and affordably produce new value to society.

Like cartography of the physical world, which for millenia guided trade and commerce, these open and public tools will allow us to minimize avoidable risks and uncertainty, create new partnerships and explore and navigate new trajectories to use inventions and ideas for public benefit.

The core of this open global facility will hinge on the world’s patent information, and the gold standard for that inventive literature corpus is from the USPTO.    This data serves as an entry point for  innovation intelligence and cartography when integrated with global science and technology literature, business, regulatory and standards data.  This will in turn provide a growing public resource for visualization and navigation of the innovation space.

Your actions in going the full distance in providing such high quality and comprehensive data to the public in a form that lends itself to such a global vision, is extraordinarily laudable and shows the highest levels of governmental integrity.

I commend your team for its exemplary public service,



Richard A. Jefferson PhD
Chief Executive Officer, Cambia
Director, Initiative for Open Innovation
Professor of Science, Technology & Law,

Queensland University of Technology (QUT)
G301, 2 George St, Brisbane 4000, QLD Australia
+61 419 499 753 (mobile)  +61 7 3138 4419 (work) +61 7 3138 4405 (fax)  |

2 Responses

  1. Agree totally! The changes are amazing.

    I had the pleasure of seeing Stu Graham, Chief Economist of the PTO, speak the other day. We also sat with each other (we know each other from the IP “thinkers” community here in Atlanta). Stu has been in the PTO for about 8 months now (he is taking leave from his tenured position at Georgia Tech), and his presentation centered on how the USPTO data shows (or does not show) innovation, job creation etc. He mentioned that his data collection is going more slowly than everyone expected because it is just–my words–too darn hard to collect the necessary data to do high level economic analysis using the existing systems. The computers have to be allocated (of course) to use of the examiners, and his team had to “take the data as it was available.”

    What struck me from his presentation, and our side conversation, is the dearth of interest (or realization or ?) of prior PTO administrations that what the PTO does has real effects on the economy and society. Put simply, the current PTO administration (and, by inference, the Obama administration) believes that they have a job to do that can affect the outside world. I don’t want to get all political here, but how can government get smaller, if your framework doesn’t even have a way to measure what a particular agency does? Having been a patent lawyer for 15 years (and a member of the community who values data over ideology), I am thrilled with the changes at the PTO.

    Also, and this is probably apropos of nothing, I asked Stu how he was finding DC. He said that Kappos has his team working 7 days a week, until 9 pm at night, so he doesn’t get out much. WOW! I can’t wait until the next time I am in Alexandria. I plan on driving by at night to see if there are actually lights on at the PTO after 5:30 pm. It will be the first time.

  2. […] bulk access to current US patent applications and grants.  As noted by Richard Jefferson in his “Science as Social Enterprise” blog, until recently the bulk data available to users was incomplete in that it did not contain 2010 […]