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THE CUTTING EDGE: Focus on E-Business

Big Payouts Offered for Patent Dispute Evidence


SAN JOSE — A new start-up hopes to appeal to the mercenary and educated masses, rewarding individuals with bounties of $10,000 or more when they provide information that helps companies settle high-stakes patent disputes.

By using the power of the Web and cash incentives, Boston-based BountyQuest Corp. is positioning itself as a much-needed vehicle to get the hard-to-find evidence of so-called prior art that can quash or validate a patent--a tool some say is increasingly being used by companies to not only protect their innovations but stifle their competitors.

Until now, such searches have been left in the hands of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and more recently, a growing legion of lawyers and private patent research firms, all of whom rely largely on database searches.

"But in a world where documents are evanescent--like how someone can put an idea in the form of a Web page and then change the page--it's a hard problem," said Tim O'Reilly, a publisher of software books and a vocal critic of the patent system. "It's all moving so fast, and imagine the patent office looking for that stuff."

O'Reilly led the outcry last year against when it received a patent for its one-click shopping method, then later won a court order forcing competitor to stop using its own one-click system.

That case, and a slew of other strategic patents in the high-tech industry, has since fueled a debate on the need for patent reform.

And now, though the two men still disagree on the patent system's value to innovation, O'Reilly and's Jeff Bezos have been arguing for improvements to the overworked, under-equipped patent office.

"Jeff and I agree that meaningful reform begins with better prior-art searches. BountyQuest has the power to make this happen," O'Reilly said.

Both men are investors in the privately held BountyQuest.

Already two dozen bounties, including a $10,000 reward for prior art of Amazon's one-click system, are listed on the site. The firm charges a $2,500 posting fee and a commission if someone turns up with valid prior art and collects the bounty. The identities of those posting the bounties are kept anonymous.

The company expects that many of its customers will be those trying to either protect their own patents or invalidate those of a competitor.

The firm aims to attract the help of engineers, scientists and researchers who will be motivated by the rewards and perhaps some good will to produce the vital prior art evidence, whether it comes in the form of a keynote speech or a dusty brochure.


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