Patent databases including the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) Patent Full-Text and Image Database (PatFT) offer rich sources for big data analysis to document the evolution of a technology or to demonstrate the value of a filing through citation networks. While scholars such as Manuel Trajtenberg, Douglas O’Reagan and Lee Fleming have complicated the relationship between citations and chains of influence between inventors, less attention has been paid to the affordances and limitations of the databases storing the underlying data. Researchers can access patent databases as searchable, online databases or via third-party sources such as the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) US Patent citation data files, but how does the structure, type, and availability of data shape our understanding of patents as historical evidence?
In this project, I will use a mixture of archival research (USPTO/US National Archives/Stanford University Library), computation textual/visual analysis, and critical code studies to answer the following research questions:
RQ1: When did the USPTO start accepting digital patent submissions and when were older patents digitized?
RQ2: How do the layers of digitization identified in RQ1 affect discovery/citations for inventors and patent examiners, as well as subsequent narrative histories of technological innovation?
RQ3: To what extent do the search functions and data structures of the USPTO’s databases shape and limit access to patents?
RQ4: Can emerging techniques for image-led searching (e.g. Seebibyte) offer an alternative to the current text-based paradigm?
The project aims to offer a corrective to a blind spot within studies of the history of science and technology, but it has the potential to be a foundational study for a larger project with broader policy-level impact (e.g. reassessment of Espacenet’s digitization or search engine quality via the European Patent Office Academic Research Programme https://www.epo.org/learning-events/materials/academic-research-programme.html).