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The standard fee for this insurance: just $109. However, also provides a similar service to open-source programmers for less than $20. Open-sourcers can thus gleefully thwart the excesses of a patent system they decry, preserving their work in a form protected from proprietary claims.

Tom Colson, CEO of, says the stew of questionable patents reminds him of his work as a young lawyer on toxic-contamination cases. Cleanup campaigns, he notes, typically involve two separate efforts: stopping pollution on the one hand, and clearing up the existing mess on the other. The environmental analogy is apt.

If targets patent pollution, Boston-based BountyQuest is out to remediate the other half of the trouble: patents of questionable validity that may already be wreaking havoc. Taking its cue from bounty hunters who track fugitive criminals for a fee, BountyQuest posts rewards of $10,000 and up that have been offered by threatened firms for “fugitive information” that can help bust invalid patents. Such bounties are a small price for threatened firms to pay for proof of prior art that will force bogus claimants to back off.

In its most highly publicized bounty to date, BountyQuest investor Tim O’Reilly, who heads computer publisher O’Reilly & Associates, posted a $10,000 reward for infor-mation that would invalidate’s “1-Click” online shopping patent. While the case drags on with unclear results, BountyQuest drew 25 submissions and ended up splitting the reward among three bounty hunters who provided information on various clicking patents related to making online purchases. Since its launch earlier this year, BountyQuest has paid $60,000 in rewards. At the time of this writing, it had roughly half a dozen open bounties posted on its Web site (, looking to bust patents involving everything from prepaid cellular calls to a drug treatment for osteoporosis.

With thousands of patents issuing weekly, we can’t expect these two ventures to solve the problem of invalid patents. But by drawing their strength from the distributive power of the Web rather than counting on an infallible patent system, they offer hope.

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