Twitter announced a new, surprisingly progressive “Innovators Patent Agreement” (colloquially referred to as the “IPA”) which aims to put more control over patents back in the hands of the inventors: the designers and engineers behind most of the innovations in technology. Twitter released the IPA on Github, so any company which wants to implement the agreement as a part of their intellectual property policy can do so with relative ease.
Adam Messinger, VP of infrastructure engineering at Twitter, briefly described the core tenets of the IPA on the Twitter Engineering 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.
He goes on to describe the IPA as a “significant departure from the current state of affairs” in the tech 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.
Twitter will implement the IPA by the end of the year. While there was some debate over on Hacker News whether the IPA would be retroactive (thereby applying to the “Pull To Refresh” patent Twitter acquired when it bought Tweetie and turned that app into the official Twitter client), concerns were dispelled not once but twice. There was much quoting of a particular clause in Messinger’s announcement which says, “We will implement the IPA later this year, and it will apply to all patents issued to our engineers, both past and present.” And to further assuage concerns about the Pull To Refresh patent, Matt Grooves of Twitter’s communications team confirmed in a tweet:
Twitter’s IPA “will apply to all their patents past and present. Yes, this means things like @lorenb‘s pull-to-refresh” bit.ly/IFbYmc
That bit.ly link? It links to a blog post by ex-Tech Cruncher MG Siegler entitled “With Their IPA, Twitter Makes Yahoo Look Like A Mean Old Drunk”. Them’s fightin’ words. But they’re not unfounded. Recall the Yahoo vs. Facebook kerfuffle from late last month when Yahoo used its engineers’ patents offensively, despite statements from the inventors (including a really well-articulated article by engineer Andy Baio in Wired entitled “A Patent Lie: How Yahoo Weaponized My Work”) asserting that they didn’t want their patents used against Facebook.
To conclude, a note from the writer:
It’s too early to tell what impact the IPA will have on the tech industry. But many feel it’s a step in the right direction, kind of like how nuclear weapons treaties are considered a good thing for geopolitical stability. So long as everyone keeps their hands to themselves, nobody gets hurt, and everyone can continue going about their business – whether its running the most successful and acquisition-hungry microblogging platform in existence, or slowly colonizing the internet – without fear of an all-out thermonuclear patent war breaking out.