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There’s a new way to check whether a patent is valid. Boston-based BountyQuest, which operates a Web site at www.bountyquest.com, posts offers for bounties, or rewards, for locating prior art. The company is the brainchild of chief executive officer Charles Cella, 34, a former patent attorney at Boston’s Foley, Hoag & Elliott, and Matt Vincent, 36, another company founder who is a patent partner at Foley Hoag. This is the way BountyQuest works: Individuals and companies, such as defendants in patent litigation or inventors seeking to discover whether their inventions are novel, offer rewards to bounty hunters who uncover prior art, a published description of a similar invention. These so-called postings are listed for 30 to 90 days. When the deadline expires, BountyQuest awards the bounties — which the posters pay — based on a points system. Vincent devised the company’s business method, which now has a patent pending. Naturally, the company has posted a bounty for its own business method. BountyQuest charges $2,500 for each listing and receives a 40 percent commission on top of each bounty. At press time, the Web site had 79 postings. Cella says that BountyQuest has received 161 submissions. The company, in operation since last fall, announced the first awards in February. There were 19 postings that had closed. Four bounty hunters — each of whom walked away with $10,000, received the lowest bounties awarded. IP Worldwide talked to Cella. What subjects does BountyQuest concentrate on? Our initial focus is on computers, biotech, and mechanical patents. We see ourselves tapping into areas that are the most controversial — business methods, other Internet patents, and biotech patents, particularly those relating to the human genome. Do you think that bounty hunters are capable of uncovering issued patents? Our system is surprisingly effective at finding [previously unknown] prior patents. Patent attorneys are allowed to be their own lexicographers — they can make up words making patents hard to search electronically. There is a need for a human intervening searcher. We’ve already had great success at finding patents that we are sure wouldn’t have been found under any other search means, unless you hire a host of patent searchers. Who’s claiming the bounties? We’re seeing submissions from authors of scientific and technical papers that have heard of us through a network of two or three people. People don’t know the precise reference that knocks out a patent, but they do know someone who works in the field. [We also get] people from all fields, [such as] musicians, hardware engineers, and biotech scientists. We’ve had a fair number of patent attorneys. They’re pretty well wired into cutting-edge innovation, so they are really among the best bounty hunters. Do you feel that the initial results call into question a basic underpinning of the patent system: that issued patents are generally valid? We think there’s room for reform in the patent area. We’ve talked to the [U.S. patent and Trademark Office] to see if we can find ways of working together to help them get to channels of prior art that are hard to reach with current tools. Switching gears, how did you go from the law to business? Though I worked as a patent attorney, I also did start-up work, licensing, venture capital, and the like. I’ve always been interested in the idea of a knowledge marketplace — that one can get value from ideas — which is why I went into patent law in the first place. BountyQuest represented the opportunity to build a marketplace to allow scientists and technologists to get large rewards for their ideas — to tap into their knowledge. Any advice for attorneys seeking to go from practicing law into having a business, like you? Law is a great background for doing [this type of work] but get ready to be in an environment of tremendous uncertainty. The expectations thrown at you every day are not nearly as predictable as those of [a law practice]. It’s a roller coaster — I love it.

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