- July 14, 2016


The director of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Michelle Lee is promoting releasing USPTO patent data APIs to the public.

She has recently stated, “Times have changed—fortunately, quite profoundly. And, at the USPTO, we are trying to harness those changes to make the scientific disclosures that have always been publicly ‘available,’ actually available in a far more meaningful and easy-to-use manner.” Her full remarks are here.

We applaud the USPTO for this move towards opening patent information. The USPTO Open Data Portal is a direct manifestation of the philosophy of open government in the 21st century. Of course, open data needs to be both legally and technically open, and the USPTO has started in that direction.

However, I encourage the USPTO to think very carefully about its audience. They may have to go further technically in order to make USPTO data widely available. If the intended users are developers, yes, just providing open APIs is certainly a good thing. Just that much is useful for people with the proper technical skills. Since this has not been fully implemented yet, it’s hard to judge at this point how open, useful or well-maintained the USPTO APIs will be. Researchers in academia could also benefit from data provided for raw download. They have the time and the inclination to sift through large data sets meticulously. This appears to be available now, and we applaud this.

But if providing open data is aimed at the average citizen, it should be available without requiring heavy technical expertise. It’s unclear if this is happening. The USPTO should strongly consider providing more tools around their APIs, similar to what they have already done with visualization. The USPTO has built a tutorial that introduces a specific visualization tool to as a way to explore USPTO data. This is a start. It should not be an afterthought. Providing more tools and tutorials will be critical for making open data truly open to all.