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The Web connects us to endless information, but sometimes the most valuable stuff remains locked away in desk drawers, filing cabinets, and the brains of ordinary humans.

That’s the premise behind BountyQuest, a Web site that offers bounties for evidence that settles intellectual property disputes. The goal: to create a community of scientists, engineers and academics who compete to demonstrate “prior art”-evidence that someone other than the patent holder is the true inventor. The payoff: $10,000 or more for every patent busted.

If you think no one ever actually wins the money, think again: This week BountyQuest announced its first four successful bounty hunters out of a possible 19 in the first round of bounty postings.

“Traditionally, it’s been difficult to search for patents online,” said Charles Cella, BountyQuest founder and CEO, and a former patent attorney. “There are a few databases and the patent office, but you end up paying someone an hourly or fixed fee to go look, even if they aren’t successful.”

Property Research Gets Personal

BountyQuest’s first four winning submissions show the limits of traditional intellectual property research. Two relied on information unavailable through the Internet or other databases, while the other two required leaps of logic only an expert-in one case the inventor himself-could accomplish.

“This really shows the power of the human network,” Cella said. “If you can reach people who are knowledgeable about who did what first, they network immediately to people in the field who contact the expert.”

The four winners were Perry Leopold, Clarke McAllister, Frank Pita, and one man who asked to remain anonymous. They submitted prior art that challenged patents related to online music, alterable event tickets, single-chip network routers, and databases, respectively.

Leopold, a musician and digital audio pioneer, told BountyQuest he was “flabbergasted” that someone had patented downloadable digital audio in 1996, when he himself had invented the technology in the late 1980s. “In my mind, I had already put that invention into the public domain,” he said. “Besides, the invention is no big deal. It was done using existing technology, and I saw an application: music.”

Launched in October 2000, BountyQuest currently lists about 30 bounties in four categories: Computers, Biotech, Mechanical, and Miscellaneous. Companies seeking to challenge a patent pay BountyQuest to post their call for prior art, and put up the bounty, which ranges from ten to fifty thousand dollars. Winning entries do not automatically invalidate patents, of course, but companies can use those entries to challenge patents in court.

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