A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 19, 2012

Twitter Promises to Behave. Patently.

From don't be evil to don't be offensive.

The evolution of tech industry statements of purpose may seem to some to be sliding down obfuscatory path to irrelevance. But honestly, this is a positive development. We'll take it.

In promising not to use patents or other forms of intellectual capital in an 'offensive' way, Twitter has taken a stand with two strategic benefits. First, they have demonstrated as an executive team that they are addressing variables they can manage, not embracing aspirational platitudes which sound arrogant, unrealistic and over which they have little in the way of leverage. That speaks to their sense of purpose and their focus. Secondly, this acknowledges that for web-based software, the interrelationships of discovery and development are often difficult to unravel. Identification of who owns what is a mug's game won only by lawyers.

And with the increasing attention to apps, those labyrinthine entanglements will only get more complicated. Better to acknowledge the interrelationships and obligations that are, in some cases, happening so quickly and simultaneously, than wasting money on frivolous lawsuits that misallocate capital from more important priorities. JL

Carl Franzen reports in TPM:
Twitter on Tuesday announced it was publicly releasing its own IPA. Sorry beer drinkers, that’s not an India Pale Ale variety of beer, but rather an “innovator’s patent agreement,” a legal document that establishes under what situations Twitter may use patents on inventions created by its employees.

Twitter’s new agreement promises not to use patents of employee software inventions in an “offensive” way — that is, suing other companies unprovoked for patent infringement — without the inventor’s expressed permission.
Essentially, Twitter is promising not to use employee inventions to become a “patent troll,” a company that acquires patents expressly for the purpose of suing others.

As Twitter’s vice president of eningeering, Adam Messinger, explained in an official blog post on the matter:

It is a commitment from Twitter to our employees that patents can only be used for defensive purposes. We will not use the patents from employees’ inventions in offensive litigation without their permission. What’s more, this control flows with the patents, so if we sold them to others, they could only use them as the inventor intended. Further, Messinger seeks to paint Twitter’s new IPA as the moral high ground and a progressive step forward in the high-tech industry, where costly patent infringement lawsuits erupt between rival firms with routine frequency.

Yahoo’s much-criticized suit against Facebook and Apple and Samsung’s global patent war are just two of the more prominent recent examples.

As Messinger wrote:

This is a significant departure from the current state of affairs in the industry. Typically, engineers and designers sign an agreement with their company that irrevocably gives that company any patents filed related to the employee’s work. The company then has control over the patents and can use them however they want, which may include selling them to others who can also use them however they want. With the IPA, employees can be assured that their patents will be used only as a shield rather than as a weapon. Numerous high-tech innovators and entrepreneurs have bemoaned the current ease with which companies can acquire software patents and weaponize them against others.

With its IPA, Twitter would seem to be attempting to nudge the industry in a more productive direction.

Of course, that’s a position made easier by the fact that Twitter reportedly currently only owns one U.S. patent, for the “pull-to-refresh” function found in the Twitter iPhone app. That patent itself was actually awarded to the inventor of an older, now defunct Twitter app called Tweetie, which Twitter acquired in 2010.

The San Francisco based company posted a generic version of the text of its IPA on the code-sharing platform GitHub. Messinger said that Twitter would implement the IPA for all of its employees “later this year,” and that it would be retroactive, applying to even inventions of former employees.


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