EletiofeThis Tiny Website Is Google’s First Line of Defense...

This Tiny Website Is Google’s First Line of Defense in the Patent Wars

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A trio of Google engineers recently came up with a futuristic way to help anyone who stumbles through presentations on video calls. They propose that when algorithms detect a speaker’s pulse racing or “umms” lengthening, a generative AI bot that mimics their voice could simply take over.

That cutting-edge idea wasn’t revealed at a big company event or in an academic journal. Instead, it appeared in a 1,500-word post on a little-known, free website called TDCommons.org that Google has quietly owned and funded for nine years. Until WIRED received a link to an idea on TDCommons last year and got curious, Google had never spoken with the media about its website.

Scrolling through TDCommons, you can read Google’s latest ideas for coordinating smart home gadgets for better sleep, preserving privacy in mobile search results, and using AI to summarize a person’s activities from their photo archives. And the submissions aren’t exclusive to Google; about 150 organizations, including HP, Cisco, and Visa, also have posted inventions to the website.

The website is a home for ideas that seem potentially valuable but not worth spending tens of thousands of dollars seeking a patent for. By publishing the technical details and establishing “prior art,” Google and other companies can head off future disputes by blocking others from filing patents for similar concepts. Google gives employees a $1,000 bonus for each invention they post to TDCommons—a tenth of what it awards its patent seekers—but they also get an immediately shareable link to gloat about otherwise secretive work.

TDCommons adds to Google’s long-standing, and far more vocal, efforts to carve out greater space for freewheeling innovation in an industry where patents can be used to hobble or extract cash from competitors. The site may be dowdy and obscure, but it does the trick. “The beauty of defensive publications is that this website can be pretty simple,” says Laura Sheridan, Google’s head of patent policy. “It needs to establish a date. And it needs to have documents be accessible. There’s not much more we need to do.”

In reality, the experiment has struggled to cut through government bureaucracy and overcome competition from more robust archives. Sheridan acknowledges it’s a work in progress. TDCommons needs a bigger flow of uploads to become less peculiar and more vital. It offers a unique hope of expanding public access to the technical creativity happening inside corporate walls—and shifting more resources toward that work.

Playing Defense

The strategy underpinning TDCommons dates back decades to the 1950s, when invention powerhouses IBM and later Xerox began publishing journals filled with what they called technical disclosures. They’d then ship the journals to patent offices, in part to serve as prior art, staking a claim on the ideas contained within. About 84 percent of patent applications denied by the US Patent and Trademark Office in the 12 months ending September 2023 were scuppered at least in part by prior art, according to the agency.

During the early-2000s internet boom, entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to bring these defensive publications, or dpubs, to databases online. IP.com is widely considered the leader, with 215,000 inventions uploaded so far and searchable access to millions of additional documents from outlets including open-access research library arXiv.org. Unlike TDCommons, posting to or accessing IP.com isn’t free. Uploading a dpub costs $395 for up to 25 pages, while viewers pay $40 for individual downloads or $49 monthly for unlimited access. The USPTO is one of IP.com’s largest customers, according to the company, with subscriptions for most of the agency’s 9,200 examiners and supervisors.

By the time Google launched TDCommons in January 2015, the company had long questioned the value of patents. Too many of them didn’t reflect significant innovation or had been wrongly granted, in its view. But as Google waded deeper into hardware and faced more accusations of infringement that became costly to defend, it began filing more patents and looking for ways to better protect itself and other inventors. “The granting of a patent that shouldn’t have been, it’s an issue everybody cares about,” Sheridan says. Google patent attorney Raju Goyal came up with an idea: a place to enable the free exchange of dpubs.

The uptake has been slow. About 15 percent of inventions Google sought to publish over the past two years appeared on TDCommons instead of proceeding as patent applications, which are generally public only 18 months after submission. Since its inception, the site has published 6,700 posts total—fewer than the privately held, New York-based IP.com does in an average year. Some ideas that Google shared on TDCommons have become real features, including a system that uses sensors on smartphones to detect and warn of earthquakes.

While the website offers anyone a fascinating glimpse into Google, its payoff to the company is uncertain. Google doesn’t closely track citations of TDCommons in rejections for patents, and it’s difficult to measure whether the initiative has stopped litigation against the company. “There’s room to improve,” Sheridan says. In a rough search of European patent records, IP.com is cited in under 1 percent of all documents, and TD Commons much less often, says Kurt Sutter, senior patent attorney at law firm E.Blum & Co in Zurich.

Call It a Flop?

For a defensive publication to successfully nix future patent claims, it has to get in front of examiners at USPTO when they’re looking for prior art. TDCommons is ranked poorly by tools that estimate how likely sites are to appear high in search results, suggesting examiners won’t readily find it if searching the web. And for reasons neither Google nor the USPTO can clearly explain, TDCommons hasn’t made the agency’s list of dozens of official research resources— which includes IP.com—despite Google saying it has proposed its inclusion for years.

If more companies made use of TDCommons, its profile might be higher, but Google’s Sheridan says that few companies want to upload to a website that’s not essential reading. Other tech companies told WIRED that dpubs aren’t core to their patent strategy at this time.

Jim Durkin, managing director for product management at IP.com, says customers such as data services company NetApp and IBM spinoff Kyndryl pay to publish dpubs there because of the perks, including better search, cryptographically signed timestamps to prove publication, editing services, and its popularity with USPTO. IP.com also promises to give notice and the chance to bulk export content if it ever shuts down—unlike TDCommons, which also doesn’t have an option to delete content. “It’s the difference between hanging art in the Louvre and grandma’s basement,” says Durkin, a patent attorney and former USPTO examiner.

Google is hoping TDCommons has a chance to be embraced as Kathi Vidal, a tech patent attorney who was sworn in as director of the USPTO almost two years ago, settles into her role. Deciding that generative AI programs can’t be patent holders has been a higher priority, she says, but creating a better search tool for prior art is an issue she’s discussed with a lot of organizations. Vidal says she’s open to the USPTO administering and funding its own prior art repository, offering up her email, [email protected], for feedback on how to do so.

A previous USPTO attempt to support a new, free database has struggled. The Prior Art Archive was launched by the agency in 2018 in partnership with Cisco to focus on digitizing old corporate documents related to inventions. Some other collaborators such as MIT moved on, and the archive’s search function no longer works. USPTO spokesperson Mandy Kraft says the agency and Cisco have not been able to establish a path forward; Cisco spokesperson Brooke Stickney says the company is committed to collaborating.

While Google waits to see if the USPTO and patent agencies in other countries endorse TDCommons, the company says it’s still committed to maintaining the site’s low-key existence, the management of which Google outsources to academic software maker Bepress. “It’s something we’re willing to, given the relatively low cost, just have stay alive and continue to invest in it as long as folks are willing to continue to use it,” Sheridan says, “I think we see the benefit on average. We’re not going to give up on the concept.”

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