Patent office plans a public search portal

No cost contract is a sign of things to come.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is on the lookout for a company that can use its cumbersome database of granted and pending patents to build a more user-friendly public website that will automatically update users about the changing status of particular patent applications.

That basic function must be provided at no cost to either USPTO or to public users, according to the agency solicitation posted Tuesday.

The chosen vendor may use the information it gathers from crawling the USPTO database, however, to build specialty value-added products that it can charge for.

This solicitation is notable for two reasons.

First, USPTO, aware that its raw data has an underutilized market value, is taking an active role in shaping that market by insisting some of it must be freely available to the public in an easily digestible form.

There’s a long history of private companies turning a profit by publishing government information more quickly and clearly than the government itself does. Bloomberg has done this with financial data from the Securities and Exchange Commission and elsewhere. I used to report for the legal news website Law360, which essentially did the same thing with public information from the federal court system’s PACER database.

These systems were built without government cooperation, however, and so had no incentive to provide any information for free. The proposed USPTO system, by contrast, would be both good business for the vendor and a good resource for researchers and entrepreneurs who aren’t flush with cash.

The second notable element of the proposed USPTO system is that it will be built and managed at no cost to the agency. No cost contracts are nothing new in government, of course. But, as agencies face the dual mandates of making more information accessible to the public without incurring new costs, you can expect to see this model more and more.