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January 26, 2012
USPTO and Prior Art
Tim O'Reilly pointed to this PDF from the US Patent and Trademark Office regarding Fair Use
It seems that various scientific and technical publishers are raising objections to the USPTO using their publications for prior-art searching. The PDF lays out the Office's position and policies around fair use. It's actually somewhat complicated but the document does a good job of describing things: In some cases, the Office has subscriptions and other forms of paid access. In others it's making use of public sources, or submissions by applicants. In some cases, the Office is providing copies of this material to applicants as part of office actions such as patent rejections or re-examinations, both of which may rely heavily on prior art such as scientific/technical publication.
The Office claims, I think with good justification, that even in cases where it is providing personal copies of non-licensed literature to applicants it is doing so under a protective umbrella of Fair Use. The PDF lays out the Fair Use justification for these practices and notes other steps the Office has taken to protect copyrights, such as not placing non-licensed material online where it could be arbitrarily copied.
Finally, the Office claims (again, I think with good reason) that it requires applicants to be responsible for copyright protection of materials that they submit to the Office and if applicants make copies or distribute materials that the Office supplied them as part of an action, then it's the applicants who bear the responsibility for this (possibly illegal) copying.
What I can't figure out is why this is an issue in the first place? Isn't one of the biggest problems we have with patents today the craptastic lack of prior art on submissions? Isn't it in everyone's best interest to use the available sci/tech literature to make the best possible prior art decisions? If there was some kind of print-on-demand feature for all sci/tech literature inside the Office I could understand the concern, but who exactly is up in arms over what seems to me to be perfectly normal uses of publications?
Or is it just that Fair Use has gotten so badly thrashed in the past couple decades that people sort of conveniently forget it even exists in statute?
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