Side Hustle #61: I’m a Crowdsource Patent Researcher!

[Welcome to a new hustle in our money making series! Get ready to put your smarty hats on and dive into the underground world of patent researching ;) Something fellow reader Mitchel has been making some good $$$ off these past years, and today explains what it’s all about. Take it away, Mitch!]

Howdy J,

First and foremost, I’m a big fan of the site. I discovered Mint thanks to you, and the whole of Rockstar Finance. So, if nothing else, thank you for that. And let it be said, budgets are indeed sexy!

I am writing because I have interest in sharing my side-hustle. I’ve made $3,000 and counting from it, doing it off and on for about two years, having devoted maybe 50 hours to it.

The side hustle I have worked is as a Crowdsource Patent Researcher, for both Article One Partners (with whom I am no longer affiliated) and Patexia (for whom I am still active), who are online intellectual property companies.

What Patent Researching Is

The basic idea is that a company has been sued by a patent troll or other non-practicing entity, for infringing on said troll’s patent, which was either purchased by the troll (ie disrupter/scammer) on the open market or simply snuck past a painfully overworked US Patent Office by the troll, with the troll demanding monetary damages from the defending company for the infringement.

In order to avoid costly litigation, or having to settle with people who don’t actually make anything, defendant companies in patent cases frequently hire AOP or Patexia to search for “prior art”, which is essentially any use of the technology described in the patent not listed or referenced in the patent itself.

The examples found have to predate the patent issue date by a specific amount of time, but can otherwise be literally anything, e.g. another patent (foreign or domestic, and I should note for the language majors out there that foreign patents are particularly prized), an existing product, a news article, an academic or technical journal, or as in one famous case, a Donald Duck cartoon (yes, you read that right–cartoons inform engineering and our legal system).

Ex: If a patent issued in 2010 for an “Online Text-Based Searching and Indexing Method” had some how neglected to mention Google, then a cache of from 2009 would be an example of prior art.

If and once prior art is found and submitted to a court as a defense against the infringement suit, the patent can be ruled invalid by the judge or the patent office (after all, a patent can only be granted for an original idea), and the case against the defending company subsequently dismissed.

Typically however, a patent troll, who make their money exclusively from suing people, will drop the case when faced with the possibility of not only not getting any money from the company they have targeted, but also of having their only asset (the patent itself) nullified once and for all.

Put another way, a bit of research and some basic lawyering usually sends them scurrying back to their holes.

The key here is that finding prior art for any given patent good enough to scare off the bottom-feeders takes either one incredibly skilled researcher, versed in every known technology, or 10,000 reasonably skilled ones who pick and choose their cases.

This is where crowdsourcing, and I, and your readers, come in…

Find Prior Art, Make Money!

Patexia and AOP have contests with cash prizes going to people who can find relevant prior art for disputed patents. AOP has given away over $6 Million worth so far, and Patexia $800,000.

The way it works is that each contest picks one patent, and then judges the researcher’s prior art according to stated criteria and pays out set amounts based on your score (or to a specific number of entrants – ex: the top 10 best prior art submissions).

The rules vary from site to site and contest to contest, but the basic idea is: find prior art, make $$$.

And anyone is allowed to enter. No degree or previous experience required, no age, race or gender restrictions, no vetting of any kind; you only need access to the web and to agree to abide by the rules of the contest.

While I am of the opinion that some kind of technical background is desirable in doing this, the truth is, anyone with enough determination and Google Fu can find good prior art, and get paid. Even basic searches (once you know what they are) can turn up winners, and there is no accounting for that thing you just happen to remember, or even better, worked on.

How Much You Can Make

By way of evidence, within 2 months of starting, with no intellectual property/legal experience, I had already won my first contest, for $1,500. Even contests where I was the 10th and final entry to make the cut paid $100-200 dollars.

But the real beauty is that each company typically has 5-10 contests running at any given time, in parallel, meaning you can pick the contest most related to your expertise/interests and go from there, or take a crack at all of them.

Also, since each contest runs for weeks at a time (usually 60 days minimum), you can work any hours you like, from anywhere. Not only that, if like me you get a job where doing research is a conflict against your employer, you can walk away from the site for months at a time with no recriminations, and come back only when your circumstances change AND you want to try a specific contest.

Pros and Cons

The downside is, you are competing against very smart people, and there is no guarantee what you will find is going to be a winner, or good enough to get paid.

But, with no start up cost, no set hours, and no effort required beyond what you choose to put in, what do you have to lose? Winning not only comes with a cash prize, but if you are so inclined, it is a nice add to your resume’s list of awards and skills as well.

There are no guarantees, but I can say that it has turned a few spare hours into cold hard cash for me, honed a potentially marketable skill, and given me a nice buzz from all the tech sleuthing and troll slaying. Given the acumen of the people who read your site, I think it may well work for them.

General Advice on How to Get Into The game

UPDATE: We’ve had a ton of emails since this post went live asking for how to get started and general advice, so Mitch spent some time writing up a handful of tips for you which was awfully kind of him!! So hopefully this helps and you don’t beat him out on too many of the competitions :)

#1) Review the different contest sites to find the one you like. Each has pros and cons in terms of submission limits, deadlines, feedback, and all importantly, prize structures. To put it plainly, before you invest your time in a game, it’s wise to know the rules. It’s also worthwhile to see what the average number of submissions is per contest, or if there is a counter for the number of submissions already entered for any contest you are considering. If that information is not publicly available, don’t ask, as the IP companies won’t tell you. As you can probably deduce, a smaller field usually means a better shot at the big money.

#2) Find a contest about a technology that you know/interests you. If you are already at an experiential disadvantage, as all rookie researchers are, find a subject you are willing to devote time to even if you end up doing it for free (learning on the job). Enthusiasm isn’t the same thing as good research, but it does help to want to put in the hours when the language gets dense and the searches seem fruitless.

#3) Once you’ve picked a contest, study the disputed patent carefully. Read it, then read it again. Then, re-read the rules/scoring rubric, and then re-read the patent one more time. Going back to the source material is never a bad idea in this situation. The only “key”, if it can be called one, is to read the individually numbered claims with an eye for terminology, referencing the accompanying figures and tables as many times as you need to in order to understand the actual operations of the device/invention. Break the sentences down into clauses and parts just like your 5th grade teacher taught you until you understand what the patent is actually trying to introduce as novel, and is therefore trying to protect. It’s the claims, not so much the summary of the invention, that are the essence of the patent, and where the origins of the dispute can be found, so you have to go word by word. Even then, it’s a skill learned over time – the language is both technical and often deliberately confusing, so as to allow the patent to be overly broad, which is how we got here in the first place!

Veterans and neophytes alike (myself included) make the mistake of going looking for prior art before they fully understand the patent itself (a temptation enabled by Google Patents, who have a “search for prior art” button which may or may not return anything of use, as it is context, not simply the words used, that defines prior art).

Ultimately, running off to search before achieving an understanding of the patent or the dispute is time down the drain. Also, review the cited section of the patent carefully. On the contest site, there is also a known references list to review. While the non-patent literature and other patents named in these places cannot be submitted as prior art (since these items are already known and credited), they can give you a sense of what was “in the air” in that field at the time of the disputed patent’s publication, along with foundational materials and names that may prove useful.

#4) Once you are crystal clear on what is being claimed and what the contest is asking you to dispute, make your initial searches based what you found in Step 3. The idea is to strip the patent down to its most basic elements and to determine if those basic elements actually already existed, but were called or presented as something else.  From there, and this is honestly too general to be good advice, but go where your leads take you. As in all research, papers beget papers, articles beget articles, names beget names, etc., and guessing where you will end up from where you start is a fool’s errand.

Not including the materials in the cited section of the disputed patent, the conference proceedings and working journals of professional organizations in the field of the patent are often a good starting point. If you happen to be a student, odds are you have access to more databases and journals than any one human could referee in a lifetime! The joke about Paul Erdos publishing in Kurdish really isn’t far wrong. There is a minor hiccup here in that many universities insist on a non-commercial clause in their database contracts, which then becomes part of the Student Code of Conduct, meaning students cannot (and should not) submit prior art they only have access to through the university with the intent of making money. However, this policy varies considerably from university to university, so learn what flies and what doesn’t at your school.

For the rest of us, I will note that city or county public libraries have no such restrictions, though far fewer technical journals and databases at their disposal, at least where I live. It is also worth noting that while many papers/articles will only be published in private databases or journals, a good number are published both publicly and privately, so if you find a winning piece of prior art, see if there are different ways of accessing it. Also, if you have any foreign language skills, now is the time to employ them. It’s not likely other researchers without those skills will find those references, and novel research is the name of the game.

#5) Take notes about what you’ve searched and what you find. Again, this encourages careful reading and analysis, but also might help to open other lines of inquiry, as it is unlikely the first batch of searches is going to turn up exactly what you are looking for (though on a lucky day, they might).

#6) Patexia gives feedback to early submitters in their contests, so get your stuff in early and heed their advice. Since they are the judges, this is essentially your only chance to iterate. This is not to discourage you from working at your own pace or taking your time, as it is wise to do both, but if you can get official feedback, in any form, then by all means get it!

#7) Last but not least, strange though it may sound, it is possible to go on tilt hunting for prior art, particularly when you submit something you think is genius and it comes back with a low score. Achieving early success is great, but don’t expect it. It takes time to get competitive, and as mentioned, you are up against some serious researchers (as in, I am the least of your problems). By way of example, in one case a friend of mine lost out on a prize because a former professor of hers also decided to participate in that contest! Stay calm, stay patient, keep learning and keep reviewing your research methods. It’s feast or famine sometimes, but the feasting is good!

Welp.. .I think I’ve given enough away to my future competition ;) Happy hunting!


What do you think? Something you want to try out? Questions, concerns?

For more info on Article One Partners, click here.
For more info on Patexia, click here.

Like these types of posts? Check out all 60 previous hustles we’ve featured! Lots of great ways to make some money on the side… Just gotta get out there and hustle!

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  1. Dee @ Color Me Frugal October 16, 2015 at 7:14 AM

    Cool side hustle! I’ve never even heard of this, but I can see why it’s a necessary service.

  2. Hannah October 16, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    Now this sounds like a side hustle that is right up my alley- I love Google Fu!

    1. J. Money October 16, 2015 at 9:24 AM

      Go make dat money!!

  3. Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies October 16, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    I love this series. This definitely seems like a side hustle that you’d have to pursue if you’re genuinely interested. It sounds really competitive. The idea that there isn’t much to lose in terms of start up is really compelling! Tech sleuthing and troll slaying – if those aren’t marketable skills in this world, what is?

    1. J. Money October 16, 2015 at 9:25 AM

      If I were hiring someone and they had “troll slaying” on their resume they’d be hired on the spot :)

  4. Kristi @ Femme Frugality October 16, 2015 at 8:37 AM

    That’s a fascinating side hustle! Thanks for sharing the details on this. I had never heard of anything like this before.

  5. Sarah Noelle October 16, 2015 at 8:38 AM

    I have never heard of this! It sounds like if you’re good at it, it can really pay off. I’m definitely looking for side hustles these days, so I will put this on my list of possibilities to research. Thanks!

  6. EL October 16, 2015 at 9:18 AM

    Cool side hustle and if your an expert internet researcher, this can be for you. It seems like a hit or miss, but if your not already side hustling its worth a shot.

    1. J. Money October 19, 2015 at 1:45 PM

      yeah, I don’t think I’m smart enough to do it myself, but it would be fun to try out and see what happens :)

  7. NGNEER October 16, 2015 at 9:26 AM

    This post is super sexy! Naturally, every other engineer would think so too. I’ll be putting this on my list of things to look into.

    A semi-related side hustle some of my coworkers are into is writing patents for a tech-ish company. There is a set dollar amount given out for every company related technology patent that goes through. A higher amount is awarded if the company uses the patent. It’s not a get rich quick hustle but large chunks of cash can be earned.

    1. J. Money October 19, 2015 at 1:45 PM

      What a great way to encourage creativity too! I love that!

    2. Andrew June 25, 2016 at 3:43 PM

      Hi NGNEER,
      I’m interested int the ‘side hustle’ you mentioned, which your coworkers do. Would you mind passing on any info on how to participate?

  8. Mrs. Budgets October 16, 2015 at 9:49 AM

    I like that this side hustle can also be a marketable skill. I like when I can make money, but also better my resume because of it.

  9. Michelle October 16, 2015 at 12:48 PM

    Interesting! I love how many awesome side hustles there are out there.

  10. Steve Miller October 16, 2015 at 2:14 PM

    Interesting side hustle!

  11. Elizabeth October 16, 2015 at 5:09 PM

    do you have a referral code for Article One Partners or the email that you use there?

    Thanks. Very interesting.

    They are using the internet “hive mind”

    1. Mitchel October 16, 2015 at 7:43 PM

      Hi Elizabeth,

      As I am no longer active for AOP, I do not. For Patexia, let J know, and I will message you privately.

      Thanks for your interest!

  12. Mitchel October 16, 2015 at 7:49 PM

    To all those who have expressed interest, first, thanks. Second, as J mentioned, I am happy to take this off the site for any questions you may have. I don’t want to share one of my work e-mails with the whole of the world, but let our gracious host know you of your quandries, and he will send them on to me.


    1. J. Money October 19, 2015 at 1:46 PM

      Thanks again for writing it all up for us – super fascinating, man!

  13. John C @ Action Economics October 18, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    I love the flexibility of this one, being able to start and stop around your life schedule is a major plus in a side hustle. Certainly worth checking out. In addition to being able to make some decent cash you are also doing some good in the world, a nice added bonus.

  14. Lisa | The Money Pinch October 18, 2015 at 7:50 AM

    I love the side hustle series! It gives me some good ideas on things I might be interested in trying. If anything, a lot of sites may have a couple articles on side income but they are all technically the same information over and over again. This one is unique.

    1. J. Money October 19, 2015 at 1:47 PM

      Thanks Lisa – we try to feature the more unique ones!

  15. Ben Smith October 29, 2015 at 1:37 PM

    I have worked with Article One Partners in the past and had a pretty good experience. But Patexia has been a horrible nightmare.

  16. UrbanGirl November 1, 2015 at 8:54 AM

    Wow, this sounds really interesting! And anything smart is indeed sexy for me… ;) I generally work with problems that require lots of investigation, digging in and deeper to find the root-cause so it naturally intrigues me. Goes to my list to try, definitely. Thanks Mitchel and J, for sharing!

    1. J. Money November 2, 2015 at 1:13 PM

      Let me know if you end up trying it out (and especially if you win some of that $$$! :))