Crowdsourcing Patent Searches: The Way Forward?

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Crowdsourcing is a relatively new phenomenon that owes its origins to the internet. It involves collecting information, work, or opinions from a group of people through the net, social media, and smartphone apps. This group may be working as paid freelancers or voluntarily contributing their services to a platform. By engaging the crowd at large, businesses are able to tap people with different skills, save costs, and expedite processes. The wonders of crowdsourcing are gradually finding their way into the IP industry too, particularly in the domain of patent search. It promises to change the way prior art searches have been conducted in the past and offer an innovative way forward.  

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Crowdsourcing in Patent Searches 

Prior art refers to all the existing information accessible to the public that holds relevance to the claim of originality of a patent. Other patents, publications, articles, conference presentations, existing products, etc., are all examples of prior art. When applying for a patent, a prior art search is conducted to disclose available prior art in order to establish the novelty of an invention, as well as differentiate it from others.   

Prior art search is a lengthy and time-consuming process that may take months to perform properly. Professional firms have so far been offering their services to unearth prior art related to an invention. But thanks to the increasingly global nature of IP and the availability of online databases such as Google and others, the path is opening for crowdsourcing to transform the way prior art searchers are conducted.

Advantages of Crowdsourcing Patent Searches 

There are several benefits of employing crowdsourcing in prior art searches, such as: 

  • It allows businesses to access a broader base of people from across industries. This results in harnessing the wisdom of experts from different domains, leading to a more fruitful search result.  
  • The searches can be more extensive as the internet allows them to span different geographical territories and languages.  
  • Tapping expert and amateur talent over the internet results in significant cost savings, as companies are able to avert the overhead costs of retaining talent. 
  • Harnessing the community helps find non-patent literature that may otherwise escape the routine patent searches conducted by professional service firms.  

Crowdsourcing Platforms 

There have been notable endeavours in the recent past to use the power of crowdsourcing in the IP industry. BountyQuest, backed by investors like Jeff Bezos and Tim O’Reilly was one such experiment in the year 2000. It challenged people to find prior art related to innovations. However, it did not find favour in the market during that time. In 2008, Article One Partners, based on a similar model, tasted success. With Microsoft and Sony as their clients, the platform has around 30,000 researchers on its books. CrowdIPR backed by UK-based VC firms Northstar Ventures and IP Group, and RWS are some other platforms that prove the growing preference for this community search model. 

Crowdsourcing and Its Influence on the USPTO 

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the central agency for granting patents in the US. In 2007, the USPTO unveiled a pilot called Peer To Patent, which was an online system that allowed the public to provide the USPTO with information relevant to processing the claims of pending patent applications. This crowdsourcing pilot was the first of its kind allowed by the agency. Later again in 2012, the USPTO utilized the America Invents Act to allow third parties to supply examiners with information that would help them in assessing patent applications. The initiative has met with limited success so far, but the agency is continually working towards exploring the ways in which crowdsourcing can be employed to its advantage.


As discussed above, through crowdsourcing, companies can expand their prior art search and cover more bases. This has a direct impact on patent litigation, as it greatly reduces the chances of infringement. A good example of this was the way Philips was able to repel the attack of patent trolls in 2012 using the crowdsourcing base of Article One Partners. This way, they were able to save millions of dollars that could be lost in the long process of patent litigation or settlement. Crowdsourcing is an effective method to assemble diverse competencies in one place at reduced costs. With the correct composition of researchers’ companies can expedite their prior art searches and lessen the time required for obtaining a patent.   

This phenomenon finds application not just in prior art searches, but also in other IP-related processes, such as patent litigation, patent valuation, patent acquisition, as well as licensing. The need for crowdsourcing is highlighted in a scenario where the effectiveness of a prior art search is of supreme importance. The infiltration of the crowdsourcing model has already begun, with major players relying on it as the preferred method. It’s only a matter of time before it gains prominence and acceptance as the most viable approach.

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