The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is asking for help to challenge what it calls an "overly broad" bar-code scanning patent held by NeoMedia Technologies.

The online rights advocacy group said it hopes people will find prior inventions (or "art"), to debunk NeoMedia's patent for reading an index off a product, matching it with information in a database and then connecting to a computer or website. "In other words, NeoMedia claims to have invented the basic concept of any technology that could, say, scan a product on a supermarket shelf and then connect you to a price-comparison website," the EFF said in an alert issued Tuesday.

A NeoMedia representative didn't respond to a request for a comment on the EFF action.

EFF has found "several strong leads" for prior art, said Jason Schultz, head of the EFF's Patent Busting Project. The EFF is looking for prior art before 1995, when NeoMedia filed a related patent claim. "NeoMedia has been threatening a number of small businesses that have not been able to fight back against the patent, so they were on our radar," Schultz said. NeoMedia has also targeted one public interest technology project with lawsuit threats, he said.

Schultz declined to name the targets of NeoMedia threats, but the EFF website said NeoMedia has threatened small information-aggregating companies such as ScanBuy and AirClic and is a potential threat to Barcr, an open-source bar-code scanner for camera phones.

The two-year-old Patent Busting Project has targeted 10 patents the EFF believes were awarded in error. The US Patent and Trademark Office has begun re-examinations on two of the 10 patents, Schultz said.

A number of tech companies and advocacy groups say patent reform is needed in the US. Among several ideas for patent reform are calls for easier ways to challenge patents and better initial examinations of patents. Some small inventors have resisted changes, saying the current patent system protects them against big companies stealing their patents.