Big News in Patent Information Land

Joe Ebersole, founder and chief counsel for the Coalition for Patent and Trademark Information Dissemination, died on Oct. 18 in Washington, D.C. There’s a brief obit in the December issue of Information Today (not yet available online) and the Washington Post (10/21). Mr. Ebersole was part of the generation that launched the modern information industry in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1980s he worked as director of special projects for Mead Central Data (Lexis-Nexis) and in that capacity was responsible for creating Lexpat, the world’s first full-text patent system. He later moved into medical information systems.

In the 1990s he established the Coalition in order to oppose patent office efforts to make patent information available on the internet. While Ebersole was often described as a consultant to USPTO management on matters relating to patent automation, he was, in fact, a registered lobbyist whose clients included some of the largest commercial patent information vendors. He worked tirelessly to block the USPTO from improving its website. In my opinion, his influence is one of the reasons why the USPTO web-based patent databases are so under-developed compared to those of other patent offices.

Ebersole’s philosophy was straightforward: patent offices had no business providing online patent information to the public that could be provided more efficiently (and at a substantial profit) by private sector vendors. [Ebersole, WPI, 2003] Of course, he conveniently ignored the fact that vendors built their search systems (developed in part with government grants and contracts) using patent data obtained from patent offices at nominal rates. In recent years many vendors have enhanced their products by linking to free patent data on patent office websites, thus avoiding the cost of storing the data and images on their own systems. Ebersole also claimed that resources spent on external information dissemination would be better spent improving internal operations for the benefit of inventors. This is a very old argument. U.S. patent commissioners in the 1870s and 1880s faced similar criticism when they began publishing a weekly gazette of patent abstracts and annual patent indexes.

The Coalition has had little impact outside the U.S. where there is greater support for patent information dissemination as a public good and a means of encouraging economic development. For example, the European Patent Office has continuously improved its esp@cenet system since it was first launched in 1998, adding 60 million patents from more than 70 countries, patent legal status and family data, enabling patent document downloading and printing, etc. According to recent articles and interviews with Wolfgang Pilch, the EPO’s principal director for patent information, there are even greater things in store for esp@cenet in 2008. For example, the EPO is investigating the possibility of adding chemical structure and synonym searching.

In retrospect, the views of Mr. Ebersole and his clients were out of step with the times. In the late 1990s citizens in developed countries went online in huge numbers. Libraries, universities and government agencies at all levels turned to the internet as a means of delivering better, more effective services to their constituents. For example, the USPTO is extremely proud of its online patent and trademark application systems, which now handle 50 and 95 percent, respectively, of all new filings. Ebersole and the Coalition’s arguments were also undermined by the emergence of other free independent patent databases such as FreePatentsOnline, Google Patents and Patent Lens. These services, which were created by small groups (or individuals) for a variety of entrepreneurial and idealistic motives, offer capabilities that are as good or better than many patent office websites. It will be interesting to see if the Coalition survives without Ebersole at the helm.

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