Wednesday, September 28

Will Microsoft Own Crowdsourcing?

Cross-posted at the Center for Internet and Society Blog

The patent application has a simple title: Crowdsourcing.

Filed on May 18, 2009, the application is assigned to Microsoft and claims a “computer-implemented” crowdsourcing method. The claims seem very broad. Folks have noticed that Facebook has a pending application for crowdsourced translations. But Microsoft's application for crowdsourcing itself has, at least so far, slipped under the radar.

The ownership of crowdsourcing seems like an important question. Crowdsourcing has been in the news in the wake of the amazing paper published last week in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. The paper reveals that players of an online game called Foldit needed only a few days to solve a difficult biological puzzle (the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease) that had stumped scientists for years.

The paper notes the significance of crowdsourcing in the breakthrough:

Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem. These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.

If crowdsourcing could become a major source of innovation, I worry about patents--whether from Microsoft or others--that might capture the inventive process itself.

Perhaps I'm wrong to worry. Maybe Microsoft's application isn't as broad as it appears to me. If so, Microsoft won't mind its patent application getting a little bit of attention. After all, it recently joined a crowdsourcing service that looks for prior art to knock out patents. And other initiatives, such as Peer-to-Patent, allow the public to crowdsource prior art for pending patent applications.

It would certainly be ironic if a patent on crowdsourcing was rejected thanks to crowdsourcing.


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