The Internet Multicasting Service
[A Non-Profit Research Corporation]
Vice President Al Gore, The White House
The Hon. William M. Daley, Secretary of Commerce
Date: April 27, 1998
Subj: Patent and Trademark Databases On-Line
Dear Mr. Vice President:
I would like to congratulate
you on the recent live Internet broadcasts of evenings from the
White House. You may not remember, but in 1993, the Internet
Multicasting Service ran a cable up to the roof of the National
Press Building, then directed a high-speed wireless link to the
White House lawn to allow the President to see his first live
Internet broadcast. While live broadcasts are always fun, it's
important not to forget the less glamorous Internet chores.
I am writing to you today about such an issue, the lack of free
Internet access to Patent and Trademark databases.
In January, 1994, over the very
vocal objections of the SEC and the Patent Office, the Internet
Multicasting Service posted the full text of all Patent and SEC
documents for free Internet access. In addition, we provided
the first Internet home for key databases from the General Services
Administration, the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Reserve
Board, and the Government Printing Office, as well as providing
audio feeds from the floor of House and Senate. Your public
support for the SEC project was key in allowing us to continue
We ran the SEC and Patent services
for 18 months and built up a user base of 50,000 users per day.
We then gave our users 60 days notice that we were terminating
To make our case
that this was a job for the government,
we posted all our source code, cost estimates to run the service,
profiles of the user base, and the email addresses of relevant
The results were very real-time.
The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, New York Times,
and other media outlets ran daily stories on the developing
issue. Tens of thousands of concerned users sent email to you,
the Chairman of the SEC, the Commissioner of Patents, the Secretary
of Commerce, and the Speaker of the House.
The Chairman of the SEC moved
very quickly to deal with the situation. At his request, we loaned
the SEC a computer, configured it, and had the SEC
up and running
with no break in service. The SEC is now an enthusiastic proponent
of EDGAR on the Internet, and they receive over 500,000 hits per
day, making it one of the government's largest servers. This
relatively smooth technology transfer was, in your own words,
"a big win for the American public."
The outcome with the Patent and
Trademark Office (PTO) was not as successful. Commissioner Lehman
refused to budge from his position that these databases be provided
exclusively by a few large, established retail information providers.
We filed for an OMB A-130 review of the situation, but I believe
that the request received only a cursory review. While we were
able to convince IBM to step into the breach and
serve the Patent data
on the net, the situation is certainly not optimal as competing
companies, such as Sun Microsystems, do not allow their employees
to use the IBM service for fear of traffic analysis.
We believe that the PTO has a
clear obligation under OMB A-130 and under the Paperwork Reduction
Act (a law
supported by you and the President
along with a unanimous
Congress), which mandates a
"diversity of public and private
for on-line government information. We also believe
the PTO has an obligation under the U.S. Constitution to make
patent and trademark registries as broadly available as it can
within the limits of budget realities. How can
the PTO possibly promote the useful arts and sciences if the
two key databases are only available at high fees from a few commercial
sources? Perhaps in 1980 this was a wise policy. But, as we
build a bridge to a new millennium and as the Internet continues
to double, how can we possibly justify denying the broadest possible
access to the Trademark and Patent databases?
We demonstrated with the SEC
and Patent databases that free on-line access does not compete
with the retail information providers. Rather, it reaches out
to new groups of users, including college students, senior citizens,
and young researchers. By assuring equal access to all for the
basic data, we showed that a college student can take the Edgar
data, figure out a new way to add value to the data, and set up
shop and as a small business on the information highway. Previously,
when the raw data cost $150,000 per year, the artificially high
barriers to entry made this kind of rapid innovation impossible.
How can we treat these databases
as government profit centers when they are the fuel that makes
our intellectual property markets function properly? The United
States is the leading producer of intellectual property in the
world. Wouldn't even a slight increase in the billions of dollars
our corporations make from licensing their intellectual property
far outweigh the costs of running the database? Markets are based
on information and we cannot have an efficient market for intellectual
property on a global basis if we hide the documents that define
We still think the best possible
place to run this database is from the PTO itself. After all,
they are the experts. Based on our two years of providing the full
text of U.S. Patents, I can tell you that this is not rocket science.
We did it with two part-time programmers working on top of a
Chinese restaurant, using a computer borrowed from Sun.
Specifically, we think the PTO should announce their
intention as a matter of policy to provide a production service
for free access to Trademark and Patent data by the end of 1998.
They do not need to provide a keyword search, but we believe
it is essential that they provide the raw historical and current
data on an FTP site in the form of a compressed archive files,
such as the Federal Election Commission or the SEC provide.
The Internet Multicasting Service
would very much like to focus our meager resources in rescuing
databases in other countries, giving American businessmen access
to information not available before. However, if this particular
has reached a stalemate, we feel we must offer a solution.
Since we can't run these databases forever on our meager budget,
we would pursue the same strategy as before, taking the
Trademark database, running the service
for a year and then terminating it. Somehow, that seems pointless
when the government could just do it in the first place.
Your leadership in promoting
promoting Internet II,
in getting our children on-line,
government on-line has been inspirational. The reason I write
to you today is the hope that this issue may have escaped your
notice and that you and the Secretary of Commerce, after examining
the facts, might come to the conclusion that the policy of the
U.S. government should be to provide these databases free of charge.
The costs are trivial (less than $250,000 for both databases),
and the benefits to American business, students, and journalists
would be immense. I hope you'll provide the leadership to finish
this crucial component of your vision to Reinvent Government.
MIT Media Laboratory