Thursday, 19 April 2012

Twitter Takes On Patent Trolls

During the past week, the tech community has been all abuzz with news from Twitter that they are in the process of crafting a new manifesto that may undercut the traditional hold on patents enjoyed by companies. 

Released to the general public on Tuesday through their blog, Twitter announced that it had been working on a policy framework, titled the “Innovator’s Patent Agreement”. This bold strategy, intended to combat the rising cost of patent trolling, has already lit up the tech community and received a mix of criticism and positive responses from all corners, centering on the issue of patent trolling or the filing of aggressive patent lawsuits. Following the recent patent infringement attacks on Facebook by Yahoo, the more publicized of a recent spate of lawsuits, Twitter has attempted to bring the conversation and focus back to promoting innovation and creativity. This shift in strategy outlines two key changes in how companies, like Twitter, interact with patents. In its first of two points, Twitter would not pursue litigation on patents without the express permission of the employees who created them. However, in the event of a patent claim being brought upon them by another company, Twitter would defend itself using whatever patents were held by their employees.

Seeing a need for such a policy throughout the tech community, Twitter has released a draft of their plan through Github. Other companies, scared by the threat of larger companies potentially turning around and capitalizing on their innovations, have begun to reach out to Twitter, looking to be included in drafting a more comprehensive document for the entire community to follow. 

I feel that there several reasons why this initiative has been greeted so positively by designers and engineers. Not only does it give employees the incentive to create new and innovative products knowing that they will receive credit for it, but also allows the employees to bolster their value to companies interested in hiring.  An employee can go to a company and say, “I have skills in x,y and z. But more importantly, I hold the patents for these innovations which can benefit your product development and company.” As an employee accumulates patents throughout their business and development, the more valuable they become. Suddenly, employees can create potential to rise above an increasingly over populated field of engineers and designers crowding the tech community. On the flip side, employers, including myself, can create incentives to potential employees by holding out opportunities, like carrots, to receive and own patents. This can be a very positive way of enticing lead designers and engineers to move over to their company. The incentive to own the patents for innovations generated by engineers and designers, is a powerful one. The best of these suddenly regain possibilities and opportunities to make a difference and have some aspect of control over their professional careers.

However, we feel that this can not be rushed into without lots of thought on the consequences in the plan to give employees more ownership over patents. One issue lies with the past ability of companies to be bought for the patents they own. With employees now controlling their patents, a company’s value can be affected without the leverage of patents to bolster the value of the company. Look at the sale of Nortel, sold for an extremely high value in order to gain access to a substantial portfolio of patents. Would Nortel have been able to sell for even a fraction of the same value without the patents? Another question that has popped up is what happens if employee X goes to company y and then moves to company z, does company y still have rights to the patent? For example, if a Google employee develops an innovative product and is subsequently hired by Yahoo, does Yahoo now have influence and control over the patents brought over by the employee?

What has been realized through all this, however, is an eagerness to start a dialogue on an issue no one has wanted to discuss till now. And dialogues often open doors to change. We may see a change from a landscape dominated by companies looking to simply capitalize on the achievements of their employees to one where innovation is encouraged, nurtured and pushed forward. At the very, least companies can be reassured that Twitter won’t be hunting them down for using their popular “pull down to refresh” widget.

Ian Hancock is the founder of iWishfor.

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