Merriam Webster defines crowdsourcing as “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than traditional employees or suppliers.” Within online circles, a request for crowdsourced assistance acts much like a virtual call to arms, relying on the bully pulpit of the Internet to harness public activism and a shared concern amongst a large group of people for a mutually desired result. The hope is, of course, that multiplying the participants and efforts in a crowdsourced project will provide more and better services, ideas or content than from a few individuals alone.
While the effectiveness of crowdsourcing in general is still a matter of debate, one area where crowdsourcing has gained significant following is in prior art searching for pending patent applications and issued patents. In an attempt to improve the quality of issued patents, both public and private entities have been trying to engage the public in the process of vetting questionable patents. With the ongoing debate about patent quality in the U.S., including ongoing debates about the patentability of business-method and software-based patents, there is a strong public desire to ensure the patents that issue from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) are indeed novel and not obvious over the prior art.
A long-time advocate for patent crowdsourcing, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)has recently been engaged in a months-long campaign to use crowdsourcing tools (and the Preissuance Submission Process and AskPatents.com website in particular) to identify and then challenge problematic patent applications related to 3D printing. According to the EFF, the recent boom in 3D technology is due in large part to the expiration of patents relating to the “core” 3D printing technologies. In general, the EFF believes 3D printing technology is “particularly unsuitable for patenting” because of “[t]he incremental nature of 3D printing.” And the EFF says it wants to keep 3D printing open to help encourage innovation.