Google recently released a free patent search tool.  Having used it briefly, I think it is fantastic.  It is far faster and more user friendly than the Patent Office’s online search.  The BNA Electronic Commerce & Law Report had a brief article about the reaction from patent practitioners and academics.  (Vol. 12 No. 1, Jan. 3, 2007, pg. 8, sorry no link).

I thought that one of the more unfortunate, though not surprising, responses was that of American University law professor Joshua Sarnoff.

Joshua Sarnoff of American University agreed with Mtima and Oman that the Google system “raises very interesting questions about public and private production and ownership of ‘public goods.'” According to Sarnoff, the PTO could have developed something similar and run it from its own Web site, rather than allowing Google to use public information to generate advertising revenue that accrues only to Google.

“Perhaps we would all be better off if Google donated its tool to the Patent Office,” Sarnoff suggested, adding “I might prefer government ownership of such a socially valuable resource.”

I don’t think Google uses public information to generate advertising revenue.  I think it’s more acturate to say that Google uses its expertise in searching through public information to generate revenue.

Thankfully, in a rare turn of events, the folks at the Patent Office get it.

In any case, Dickinson [former director of the Patent Office] said, it is not really fair to compare the Google and PTO patent search systems. First, he said, the state of search technology has vastly improved since the PTO system was developed. Moreover, he added, “while the IT folks at the USPTO are a dedicated and talented group, the talent that Google is able to assemble, and pay for, is probably the best in the world.”

So, it turns out that private organizations might be better at identifying and assembling talent.  It also turns out that the government doesn’t always have your best interest in mind when it decides what to do with a “socially valuable resource.”

Although the PTO’s online patent search system was “one of the things I’m proudest of,” Dickinson said, there was active opposition to it from outside search companies who had long benefited from selling hard copies of patents. “They went so far as to sue us under the Paperwork Reduction Act,” Dickinson said.

The “upshot” was a compromise system that was not as “customer friendly” as it might have been, according to Dickinson. Users could print only one page at a time, for example, he said.

Now how did those pesky special interests get their nose in there?