Open-source software has sparked revolutionary reform of the US patent system in new plans outlined today.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), IBM and Open Source Development announced a new plan to speed up patent approval, while improving their quality.

The most dramatic part of the three-part initiative will establish open-source software as prior art. Prior art refers to existing inventions that can prevent a new patent from being awarded. OSDL, IBM, Novell, Red Hat and SourceForge.net are developing a searchable database of open source code so patent examiners and the general public can search for prior art from the open source community when considering a patent application. Such a storage system would satisfy legal requirements for the code to qualify as prior art, IBM said.

The decision follows a glut of high-profile and long-running patent disputes in recent years, frequently involving software innovations. "For years now, we have been hearing concerns from the software community about the patent system," said under secretary of commerce for intellectual property Jon Dudas. "It is important that those in the open source community are joining USPTO to provide resources that are key to examining software-related applications." More details will be made available later this month on the USPTO's website.

Another part will allow anyone who visits the USPTO website to search for patent information and receive emails regarding newly published patent applications. The program will also encourage the public to review patent applications and offer feedback to the USPTO regarding prior art.

The final leg of the program is a patent quality index. The index will assign a number to patent applications and patents indicating the quality of the patent. Members of the public can use the indexing system to evaluate the quality of proposed patents, patent holders can use it to identify weaknesses in their own patents, and companies can use the index to evaluate competitive patents relevant to a field they may be working in.

The USPTO will host a public meeting to discuss the projects at its offices on 16 February. In addition, last week it proposed additional policy changes that it hopes will reduce the time it takes for it to review patents and improve the quality of patents that are granted. The new rules include changes in the way inventors make patent applications and subsequent filings.