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Whose idea is it, anyway? 'Bounty hunters' track the validity of patents

Patents have been essential to ensuring innovation. But the US may be fencing itself in by putting too many new developments under patent protection.

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It's a case that anyone who has ever struggled for possession of the TV remote could relate to.

Universal Electronics, a company based in Cypress, Calif., holds a patent on a multipurpose remote-control device - something that can program several electronic devices in, for instance, a house: the lights, the TV, the sound system. And just over a year ago, Universal filed suit against four other manufacturers of similar devices, claiming patent infringement.

But Universal's patent on the multipurpose remote is being challenged - a development that sent Duane, a software engineer in southern New Jersey and a bounty hunter, digging deep into the microfiche collections of his local public library.

Duane, who didn't want his last name used, thought the Universal remote sounded like a good idea - so good, in fact, that he remembered that someone had already invented such a thing. His triumph was to find a copy of a Byte magazine article he recalled from 1987 that told how to build a remote like Universal's. His diligence won him a $10,000 bounty offered by a litigant challenging Universal's patent.

Duane is a foot soldier in the struggle to keep the United States patent system honest. In this case, finding the article - like finding a blueprint or a technical drawing - provided "prior art," evidence that a certain invention existed before the current claimant invented it. Such a discovery can invalidate a patent.

Boston patent attorney Charles Cella, founder and chief executive of Bounty Quest, the company through which Duane won his prize, describes the situation as a "patent-quality crisis." Close to half of all patents are invalidated when litigated, he says.

The ongoing Universal case raises a number of questions about the US patent system. Are patents being granted undeservedly, simply because examiners are too swamped to give applications due diligence? And is America patenting itself into a corner: granting too many patents, and patents of the wrong kind, thus impeding the capacity for further innovation?

It's a crisis most civilizations would love to have.

No shortage of ideas
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