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. If construed broadly, the claims could cover a lot of networked crowdsourcing. Folks have noticed that Facebook has a pending application for crowdsourced translations. But Microsoft's application has, at least so far, slipped under the radar.
The ownership of crowdsourcing is 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. First, Microsoft could be more interested in a patent like this for defensive purposes. And maybe the claims would be read narrowly enough to leave plenty of scope for others to run different kinds of crowdsourcing programs. It's always hard to predict how the patentee--and ultimately a court--will construe patent claims.
Interestingly, Microsoft 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 be ironic if a patent on crowdsourcing was rejected thanks to crowdsourcing.