According to the Sept. 4 issue of Business Week, the USPTO has recently banned Wikipedia as an acceptable source of information for determining the patentability of inventions. Patent examiners and applicants have been citing Wikipedia articles in patents since at least November 2003... and not very many of them at that. A quick search of the USPTO's patent database reveals that from January 2004 to the present only 74 patents cite Wikipedia articles. Compare that to 33,802 references to IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) publications. Other science and engineering publishers heavily favored by patent examiners and applicants include:
Association of Computing Machinery = 6,010
Elsevier = 4,493
Springer Verlag = 2,319
McGraw-Hill = 2,728
Chemical Abstracts Service = 2,274
Oxford Univ Press = 781
Society of Automotive Engineers = 968
American Society of Mechanical Engineers = 850
Society of Petroleum Engineers =706
Cambridge Univ Press = 639
Wiley Interscience = 545
MIT Press = 403
ASTM = 498
American Institute of Chemical Engineers = 207
Wikipedia did beat its arch rival Encyclopedia Britannica, which was cited in only 47 patents in the same time period.
Patent examiners and patent attorneys are highly trained (many have Masters or PhDs) and experienced professionals. The above stats show that most do know the difference between an authoritative source and a marginal or unreliable one. It may be that Wikipedia is the most appropriate source for some types of information. It's another form of “gray” literature that is well-suited to emerging or interdisciplinary fields that don’t have established vocabularies or literature. Besides, critics of the USPTO have long complained that patent examiners allow too many patents, especially in the fields of computer technology and business methods, that should have been refused on the basis of prior art found outside the realm of traditional publishing, such as open source software archives.
The USPTO’s own rules state that “[a]n electronic publication, including an on-line database or Internet publication,” may be valid reference if it is accessible to the public. Wikipedia certainly fits both criteria. What about CNET, Gizmodo, Slashdot and other popular tech sites where people discuss gadgets, share hacks and speculate on the future of technology?
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