The Open Patent Project

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On September 12, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent to Charles Nesson, Jonathan Zittrain, Wendy Seltzer, and Alexander Macgillivray for a tool called The Question Tool. The Question Tool is based on a fairly simple concept, but truly opens up the possibility for communicating interactively with a very large audience. Roughly speaking, what it does is this:

  • Using a web interface, allows anyone to pose a question to the speaker/moderators
  • Using the same web interface, allows anyone to vote on the posed questions to indicate that they would like to see a particular question answered
  • Displays the questions in order of popularity so that the speaker/moderator can choose which questions to answer

In accordance with the philosophy of this class and of the Berkman Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (with which Wendy is associated), and Google (with which Alex is associated), the holders of this patent--actually we've only confirmed it with Nesson and Zittrain, so Seltzer and Macgillivray will hopefully weigh in and agree--would like to "patentleft" it. That is, they would like to use their patent rights to ensure that anyone can use the question tool, and what's more, that anyone who makes an improvement to it will also have to "patentleft" their improvements if they patent them at all.

The idea of "patentleft" is based on the idea of "copyleft", an idea that was first introduced by Richard Stallman in the copyright domain. Those who are unfamiliar may wish to watch the lecture video from Tuesday, Sept. 12 to get an idea of what we mean by it. The "copyleft" idea has been institutionalized by the General Public License for open source software and, more broadly, by Creative Commons for all types of intellectual property. Creative Commons allows anyone to take their copyrighted works and place them under a Creative Commons license that governs how others may make use of the work.

The Problem

There is no institutionalized system for "patentleft" at this point. Professors Nesson and Zittrain would like to have a patentleft license that they can use for the Question Tool. Further, it would be great to promote a "patentleft" license for other patents.

Can we come up with an appropriate license? What legal issues are there? What would the license look like, legally speaking? How can we promote it? Can we get Creative Commons to offer it along with their copyright licenses?

Would it be possible to make a public installation of the q-tool where people could create instances for whatever events they want for free?

What You Can Do to Contribute

  • We need a better name than "patentleft", obviously. Do you have an idea? Want to start a discussion about it?
  • What are the legal issues involved with "patentleft". Is it as easy as just doing it? Can we do a little research on it?
  • What would a patentleft license looklike? Can we draft one?
  • There doesn't seem to be an official home/home page for the Question Tool. It would be good to have one. We should coordinate with Nesson/Zittrain/Seltzer/Macgillivray to create one that they are happy with.
  • Analyze the consequences of restricting the ability to patent improvements on the patentlefted invention. In the context of pharmaceuticals, for example, legal rules making substances unpatentable starting a year after someone foresees their usefulness has led to promising substances being abandoned because of the lack of incentive to invest in their development. How can the patentleft system be structured to avoid such problems?
  • Can you think of other tasks people can do? Add them here

Technical Notes

  • Can we get a link to the source code for the q-tool? Is it in SourceForge?
  • To install the q-tool in the latest version we need a server with PHP5 and mysql. PHP needs to have the mysql and xsl modules installed.
  • There is a q-tool/Second Life interface under development now!

Participant List

If you would like people to know that you are working on this project, list your name here. This may result in others interested in the project contacting you. If you don't want to list your name, consider putting a watch on this page so that you can see when people make changes and additions!

  • Rebecca Nesson
  • Christina Xu (FAS student, so not well-versed in law, but would love to help)

Useful Links