This is cool for a couple reasons. Nobody likes the patent wars, and when the Woz isn’t with it anymore, you know you’re not doing good. But this is a great step in the right direction, provided the execution is well done.
So what actually happened here?
The biggest problem with technical patents is that the subject matter is diverse. Even within the subset of database structural patents, there are generally quite a few PHD level engineers associated with submissions. It would be ludicrous to expect any individual to be able to understand and assess whether a patent involving database violated someones work, and to also be able to decide whether machinery required for powering hydroelectric dams infringed on other inventions; yet, this is what we have today. Even within the realm of technical invention, there’s a lot to cover and nobody has sufficient knowledge individually. It’s time for some Voltron style Evolution.
Enter Stack Overflow.
Where can you find people who obsess about technology? Systems Administrators tend to have both time on their hands and an interest in the history of their profession. Part of being a great sysadmin is education, and that education includes understanding a wide range of applications. As an aggregate knowledge pool, they have a much better chance of discovering prior art than a patent agent does. These admins use stack overflow as an outside knowledge base, and it works quite well. Applying it to patents is a good decision that helps to alleviate the insanity of future patents.
On the other hand, it could potentially make getting a patent very difficult. Opening up patent analysis to the crowd could allow the process to be manipulated by manufacturing sentiment. It takes a very good human curation system coupled with good anti-spam controls to make sure this manipulation doesn’t happen. Fortunately, Sysadmins are efficiency experts and will automate as much as they can, and one would think a forum for admins would probably do a good job.
This isn’t the whole answer around patents, because we’ve got quite the mess right now, but it’s a big step in the right direction.