The tech patent wars are threatening to take over the market: desperate companies use them as last ditch attempts at a profit and industry titans to suppress their competitors. For every problem that the patent process solves in tech, it creates 10 more.
It’s all gotten terribly out of control, and several companies are starting to strike out against the standard. Today Twitter joined them with its Innovator’s Patent Agreement (IPA). “The IPA is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers,” the company announced via its blog. “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.”
The current state of patents affairs is anything but civil. In one corner you have Yahoo, in its most desperate hour, suing a conveniently pre-IPO Facebook based on patents it’s had for years. In another, you have Apple and Samsung trading patent litigation to try and block the other from selling their products all over the world. And the general consensus surrounding all of it is that it hurts innovation: the better technology for consumers doesn’t always win – sometimes the guy who bought the stronger patent portfolio does.
Patents were intended to protect ideas you put into action, processes you’d refined – they were shields for inventors to exercise upon attack. They were not meant to be bought up and horded and then used once a competitor had been lured into a false sense of safety.
Which is why Twitter’s IPA announcement is an inspiring idea. It means the person that the patent is actually tied to retains say over its use.
It’s both surprising and sensible that Twitter is taking this stand. The company has been criticized for its treatment of third developers before; gouging their creativity and then taking it in house and driving their apps out of business. At the same time, the company has repeatedly done its part to act ethically and use its position to create a stronger social networking community.
Now if big consumer tech companies – like Apple, HTC, or Samsung – would consider this type of agreement, there would be considerable change. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Baby steps.