If the rapidly expanding and troublesome world of IT patents wasn't enough, the Australian patent body, IP Australia, has just made it easier for companies to file them.

The organisation is working on an electronic patent lodgement to reduce the amount of manual processing required. Its acting CIO and director of IT architecture, Paul Ayers, explains that 60 percent of all patent applications are still paper-based.

"We have been looking at a project to make this electronic and are putting in a system now to facilitate this," Ayers said (warned?). "It won't eliminate all pen and paper processing but the top ten patent firms apply for 60 percent of all patents." Fortunately, he added: "Any change is probably a couple of years out as they need to adjust their IT systems."

The Web services project will use XML as the data interchange format, which may have even more chilling effects. "This project opens the door to international exchange of patent information so it will kill two birds with one stone," Ayers said. "In November we will trial data exchange with WIPO. There is a push for international communications."

Technology patents have been a huge issue in the past year, with the US system allowing for thousands to be granted on what critics say are ludicrously large criteria (see here for just one example). Patents granting what would appear to be control over basic modern technological functions has also led to large lawsuits and large payouts, causing growing concern. At the same time, the US has been placing pressure on the Europe to adopt its far more liberal patent and trademarks rights, sparking a political battle.

Just last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a list of the ten patents it considers most dangerous to the continuing freedom of use of the Internet and related software.

Nevertheless, Ayers said this project is a significant step forward for document interchange and it is the most strategic project for IP Australia's business. The technology driving the project is being developed around IP Australia's existing infrastructure and won't require any upgrades.

"It's a PKI system using Betrusted's hosted security service," he said. "We're outsourcing the trusted net security server and archive it when it's validated. Once we get the package it will be processed through our backend systems running on the same Solaris box. This is the last step as we only care about the information integrity."

Whether the same effort is put into allowing companies (and the issuing body itself) to find prior art than is put into allowing companies to apply for new patents (and hence bring in new money) is liable to prove extremely important.