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Ask Patents has a committed, but relatively small community. This has some downstream effects, like the lack of any community moderators, and the lack of diversity in answerers. There has been some discussion over the years of what could be done to remedy this. For example Can ask patents be referred back to Area 51?, What to do to get this site more attention? and Would migrating Copyright and Trademarks from the general Legal stack make sense?.

This question is prompted by our moderator's comment on the last of these.

At least part of issue with Ask Patents likely stems from its scope being rather narrow. This leads to relatively few good questions, and so relatively few contributors become regulars. One of the options that crops up from time-to-time (at least because I mention it) is whether Ask Patents could be merged into Law, given that there is a great deal of overlap between the scopes of each site. Indeed, one recent question appeared on both stacks, and got reasonably similar answers.

A comparison between the scopes

For reference, the scope of Law is:

Statutes or court decisions

Legal terms and language, doctrines and theory

Legal process and procedure

Historical legal applications

Dealing with legal professionals

The scope of Patents is:

  1. Prior art for a US patent application, whether anyone knows of any that might exist, or whether something you’ve found would qualify.

  2. US patent law or the patent approval process

  3. Specific aspects or interpretations of a particular patent claim

The latter two seem clearly within the current scope of Law. That is, US patent law or the patent approval process is clearly within "legal process and procedure". And "specific aspects or interpretations of a particular patent claim" is clearly within "legal terms and language" or "legal process and procedure". Indeed, it is reasonably common to see questions about the interpretation of contract terms. Since a contract is to contract law as a patent is to patent law, it seems reasonable that interpretations of patent claims should be on topic too.

It therefore seems to me that the only potential difference is a question relating to prior art for a US patent application. This is a tricky one. It doesn't neatly fit into any of the categories. In addition, it could be seen as a little close to "specific legal advice", which is explicitly off-topic. But on the other hand, with a little creative interpretation, it is a question relating to "historical legal application" in the sense of "did the USPTO properly apply the requirement for novelty and non-obviousness in this historical patent case?". Since I'm not a regular here, I unfortunately don't have a feel for how the community would react to such a question.

The question

In view of this, my question is in two parts:

  1. Does the scope of Law already fully cover the scope of Ask Patents?
  2. If not, would the Law community be in favour of broadening the scope to do so?
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Prologue

I am sympathetic to the plight of Patents.SE. Or is it AskPatents.SE? See, one of my problems in answering this is that whenever I have tried to figure out what the deal is with that site I get hints that AskPatents is, or was supposed to be, an atypical Stack Exchange. Something like an explicit collaboration with the USPTO? But then ... what, the USPTO never showed up?

Answer based on definitions

I just glanced at some recent questions on Patents.SE and it appears that a lot of them would be on-topic here. So by all means, come on over – the tag is warm!

However, the explicit scope of Patents.SE is not compatible with the Law.SE scope, because: Anything dealing with a specific application or patent is almost certainly going to be closed for one or both of the following reasons:

  1. Legal advice. (E.g., "Does Claim A encompass Thing B (or vice versa)?")
  2. Primarily opinion. (E.g., "Was this decision legal/proper?")

I.e., we will gladly Q&A not only patent law, but also USPTO/EPO/PCT/etc. rules and regulations. But we avoid getting into the business of primarily opining upon what a judge (or examiner) might or should do in a specific case.

And I certainly don't see how we could fit the first enumerated function of Patents.SE – prior art relevant to particular patents – into this Stack Exchange.

Updated answer based on reality

It sounds, per DonQuiKong, like the reality is that essentially all Patents.SE content falls under its (now-expanded) Topic #2, which is generally on-topic at Law.SE. That being the case, I would agree with a vote to merge this "functional subset" of Patents.SE into Law.SE.

The key remaining questions would be:

  1. Which tags (if any) to migrate along the way.
  2. What to do with the (presently 345) prior-art-requests.

If the Community Managers are looking for a blanket solution, it may be adequate to put a yellow note on migrated questions explaining that they came from a separate SE that historically had a different scope. That would head off the occasional complaint I would expect when new questions here are closed as off-topic even though analogous off-topic questions that came from Patents.SE have answers and have not been closed.

  • 1
    Valid points of concern - only that we don't have those questions in reality, only in the "explicit scope" which is outdated / doesn't appear in the de facto questions (see my answer). As to what ask patents is ... yeah no ... what it was supposed to be -> George Whites answer, some kind of community kill overly broad patents with prior art project of SE, USPTO, google, ... Tbh., that didn't work out, what's left is a little SE about patent law. – DonQuiKong Mar 14 '18 at 7:32
  • @DonQuiKong – interesting. I just amended my answer based on your description of what's really there. – feetwet Mar 14 '18 at 9:32
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    There are precedents to all this. When Theoretical Physics closed, for example, most of its questions went to Physics. Indeed, there are yellow banners on all those questions (like this one) that say it's been migrated. Unfortunately, the link there leads to an error page. (I also know that this banner can be cleared by moderators if the migration history is cleared.) – Laurel Mar 25 '18 at 3:23
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I'm active on Ask Patents and did not know that our scope was limited to questions regarding U.S. patents and patent law. We have not been behaving as if that was the case. Many good questions that relate to the EPO and other non-U.S. patent law have been answered.

A key rationale of the creation of the site was to give software people who complain about software patents a way to use their knowledge to try to shoot them down under a new feature of the patent system. The model question that the site was created to answer is "help me find prior art to kill this patent application", we get very few of those now. The very good director of the patent office, Dave Kappos, who set this up with SE has been gone for quite a long time.

It may not have come up in your research about the site but google was the third partner. If you look up a patent at google patents you will see a "discuss" button that takes you right to AP.

Also, we can't go back to Area 51 because we were never there.

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I'm generally in favour of a merger, but scope was a concern of mine as well. In light of your statement:

Since I'm not a regular here, I unfortunately don't have a feel for how the community would react to such a question.

I decided to undertake a review of recent questions on Ask Patents. Obviously I'm only one person and others might disagree on some assessments, but it should give you a rough idea on the scope here at Law.SE. It might also give other Law.SE users a better idea of what kind of questions we might expect (though I'm mostly going to be covering the off-topic ones). Also note that I don't often participate in reviews here, but that's more a lack of time than a lack of interest (this post notwithstanding). In light of reviewing the "functional" scope of Ask Patents, I chose the 50 most recent questions with at least 1 upvote (as a rough measure of the current Ask Patents community having approved the question). With all those caveats in mind, here's what I found:

Summary

  • 37 questions within our scope. Some of these are much more esoteric and specific than I'm used to here at Law.SE (especially some of the USPTO procedural questions), but they are nevertheless on topic.
  • 7 questions either at the edge of our scope or easily editable to be in scope (I personally wouldn't vote to close these)
  • 6 questions I would vote to close as off-topic

Off topic

Edge Cases

On topic

I'm not going to go into detail with these, but for reference these are the rest of the question IDs I looked at:

19266, 19263, 19262, 19252, 19245, 19238, 19237, 19233, 19228, 19227, 19219, 19216, 19204, 19196, 19186, 19184, 19181, 19172, 19170, 19163, 19158, 19149, 19133, 19114, 19108, 19099, 19085, 19084, 19071, 19068, 19054, 19053, 19049, 19042, 19037, 19031, 19030

Conclusion

From my review at least, about 3/4 of recent questions fit straight into our scope, and half the rest probably can as well. So from a scope perspective, I am definitely for this merger. I would certainly appreciate an increase in patent content.

It might even dilute the high proportion of questions we get (even though that's where I'm most active). Alternatively we might get more, as patents and copyright do intersect to a degree. Anyways, now I'm just rambling...

  • Thank you: Excellent and very helpful case study! – feetwet Mar 16 '18 at 1:38
  • I just want to add that the prior art question has no answer (the question is fine, there's just nobody searching for prior art, so that's why I'd classify it as disfunctional). From the "edge cases" questions, maybe the scope of law could be gernalized to accomodate patent terminology. The specific off-topic questions should probably be general questions anyways (what's infringement, when to file a provisional, ...) which would then be on topic, so I think they can be edited to fit the scope). – DonQuiKong Mar 16 '18 at 8:44
  • Just to be clear, we can't give legal advice (what does this patent exactly cover, do I infringe it) either, even though we get those questions and sometimes they get answers like "look at the claims, this is claim 1." But I personally wouldn't miss those. – DonQuiKong Mar 16 '18 at 8:44
  • @DonQuiKong Thanks for the clarification, I see even less issues now. As for the terminology stuff, I don't see an issue with it in general, I was more pointing out that they could stray into legal advice, but I don't think the ones I cited do. – DPenner1 Mar 16 '18 at 12:17
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The first point in the scope of ask patents - finding prior art, is, essentially, dead. We have a handful of questions asking for prior art each year, and no good answers to those (that I would remember) in the past years.

The second point has, in practice, been broadened to include patent question for all the world.

The third one, specific interpretations of specific claims, I don't think that has ever been done on ask patents. It's way out of what a community could achieve without dozens of experienced patent attorneys with to much time on their hands.

All in all, the still active part of ask patents would be a perfect fit here and could benefit from the larger community.

Additionally, this site would benefit from some patent people answering the patent tag questions.

-> Merge!


As to the specifics, tags are more of a nice to have thing over at ask patents, they aren't used consistently and mostly a few broad tags that don't help with anything are used for questions - and/or some new/small tags that, well, describe the question but aren't useful as tags. So merging ask patents without the tags would be my preferred solution.

The scope should be any question about patent law, which would be on topic here anyways and additionally proceedings before the (us)pto (epo, etc. maybe). I don't know if that would be on topic but I vote to include it.

Ask patents has maybe a dozen active users, I remember exactly one time when we were able to close a question without moderator intervention, but we are generally able to answer the (rather few) good questions, so law.SE won't be overwhelmed by patent stuff.

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I think questions on how to comply with patent office procedures and how to prosecute an application are as important as pure patent law questions. And often of more practical value.

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I think that as alluded to by George White and feetwet, the Ask Patents site allows questions that would be off topic for Law.SE. If I ask

Can I patent this invention I disclosed 6 months ago to a friend?

On Law.SE the question would be off topic as "asking for legal advise", but on AskPatents.SE it woud not be off topic as rather than just give an opinion we can say "Per MPEP 2153 and 35 U.S.C. 102..." and give an answer which would not be allowed on Law.SE.

I think there are good points on merging AskPatents to Law.SE, but given that patent practice is its own separate profession there is stronger justification to have separate sites.

All of that said, If Law.SE were to be more liberal with patent questions than non-patent questions, I could be for a merger.

Of one more point along the logic of the question is if we merge Patents.SE why not merge all taxation questions on Money.SE to Law.SE as well?

  • If that question were closed here, I'd actually vote to reopen. Your suggested answer shows this can easily be answered in a non-legal-advice way. – DPenner1 Oct 9 '18 at 12:23

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