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Did Twitter Just Unilaterally Disarm in the Patent War?

Team Engage

Team Engage

The tech community is buzzing about Twitter’s newly-announced Innovator’s Patent Agreement (IPA), outlined yesterday by Twitter’s vice president of engineering, Adam Messinger, on the official Twitter blog.

As Messinger describes it, “The IPA is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers. 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.”

So why is this a big deal? Because patent lawsuits have become the weapon of choice for tech giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft in their attempts to gain a competitive edge and stifle rival product development.

While last week’s big tech news was Facebook’s billion-dollar acquisition of Instagram, on the same day Microsoft made its own billion-dollar deal to buy and license patents from AOL. Even older patents owned by past-their-prime companies can be a potent legal weapon for a company like Microsoft to defend its business and attack competitors.

Under the new IPA, Twitter’s engineers would maintain control of patents for their innovations, requiring any future patent owners to obtain the inventor’s permission before filing any lawsuit. In effect, Twitter has stated that while it will continue to defend its own innovations, it will not be in the business of using its patents to block innovation at rival firms.

So why is Twitter unilaterally disarming itself in the patent war? Changing the way it utilizes patents represents a big shift from business-as-usual in the tech industry in the direction of engineers and inventors. Right now, the developer community receives little benefit from excessive patent trolling, with innovation slowed down even at small firms by the ever-present threat of legal action from a large patent holder.

The new IPA represents a low-risk way for Twitter to stake out its territory in the patent wars. Twitter owns few patents compared to giants like Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Apple, and has not been part of the recent patent buying-frenzy that has led Microsoft and Facebook to spend billions in the past few weeks to build up their intellectual property war chests. By giving more control to its engineers, Twitter builds up good will in the larger developer community, and becomes a powerful new voice in the patent debate overnight without spending millions in legal fees or patent acquisitions.

How big an impact will the new IPA have on patent trolling in the tech community? It seems unlikely that any of the large patent-holders would sign onto an agreement like this and place themselves at a disadvantage with their rivals. This makes Twitter’s stance largely symbolic, but with it’s growing influence in culture, politics, and media, its IPA could give innovative companies a new tool to reform the broken patent system.

  • Jakers

    2012-04-18 16:59:00

    it will also be interesting to see how often they enter into patent battles WITH their engineers consent.

  • Jakers

    2012-04-18 16:53:00

    it's prisoner's dilemma: while it would be great if everyone was dissarmed, its in each individual company's benefit to stay armed under all scenarios. but a symbolic/moral victory is better than none at all.

  • Josh Liss

    2012-04-18 15:00:00

    Although this IPA is a 'nice' concept, I unfortunately think this wall fail to spark any systematic reform. As you mentioned above, flailing companies which have fallen from grace such as AOL are still able to sell this 'property' for upwards of a billion dollars, I don't see them deciding to give away what has now proven to be a considerable revenue stream. Relatively speaking, twitter doesn't have as many patents and already has an open API for fellow tech community members to work with. If this movement does have legs, I think the reforms will occur in how one can engage with these open API's.