Thanks to Twitter Patent Trolls May Have Lost Their Bridges

May 2, 2012

By Kerrie Spencer, staff writer – May 2, 2012

This had to happen, but it is surprising that it did, given the nature of human greed.

You may recall the noises Google was making recently about suing Facebook for allegedly infringing on several of their patents. We ran an article about it in early March 2012. At issue were about 10 to 20 Yahoo patents. No one was clear on the precise number, or even what they involved, other than technical devices used by Facebook for messaging, privacy controls, ads and news feeds. (1)

It would take big bucks to deal with this issue. Now Twitter seems to have come up with a way to solve sticky wickets like the Google vs. Facebook ‘grab for cash.’ It is refreshing to see that a big company CEO has taken some giant steps forward to end the infighting over intellectual property, and with just one simple step, the Innovator’s Patent Agreement (IPA). (2)

It has to make you wonder why this was not thought of before now. Nonetheless, it is considered to be a brilliant solution to shutting down third party patent trolls barging in to try and shoehorn money out of everyone.

Twitter revealed they reached an internal patent agreement with their engineers and designers that states they will not pursue litigation over patents without the consent of those who created them in the first place. (2) Aside from giving the power of decision making back to the people who do their thing online and in the background, this move is seen by the industry as the first step in tamping down the virtual onslaught of patent infringement lawsuits.

Some say the flood of greedy patent trolls and big companies suing for patent infringement, when most of them cannot even name what is being infringed, is completely out of control. Others say there needs to be a legitimate process to sue for violation of intellectual property rights, and no doubt, there does need to be a method of suing for a genuine infringement. What does that entail? The answer to that will lie with the courts, and it may take a while to get one. These lawsuits are notoriously long, drawn-out, convoluted and complex, meaning it often takes years to get a case resolved and big bucks to accomplish it.

What happens if someone sues Twitter over patent infringement? According to the CEO, they will be able to use patents awarded to any of their current or former employees in order to mount a defense. The IPA also applies retroactively to patents Twitter has already filed, and allows engineers and designers that same power if they leave, effectively shutting down the possibility of nasty, aggressive litigation later. (2)

Overall, the industry reaction to the announcement was positive, as it takes direct aim at those who would troll for patents and try to grab cash from others for relatively vague reasons, bordering on thinly veiled attempts to extort money. Another major positive note sounds in this move by Twitter, the company’s freely posting a draft of the IPA to the online open-source archive GitHub. (3) It will make the rounds, and other companies interested in attempting something similar, will have a point to start from to make it happen. Foursquare and Multizone already are on board.

In most cases, when an engineer and/or designer signs on to work with a particular company, they are giving up their patent rights in whatever they create. With the advent of the IPA, those who are the leading lights behind the innovative technology that makes the big companies the success they are, are guaranteed their patents will not be used as a blunt weapon in a lawsuit. (4)

Even though Twitter does not claim to have patents yet, they have applied for them and will soon join the ranks of big companies that boast of numerous patents to their name. While Twitter may never acquire the notebook of patents that Google seems to have, they are working to have all of their creations made legal, and vow that their new patent agreement would apply to patents even if they are sold. (4)

And against the background of Twitter’s announcement of the IPA, rages several intellectual property lawsuits that may well turn into ugly duke ‘em out fights. The biggest one in the news is Oracle suing Google over patent and copyright infringement. Oracle bought Sun Microsystems for $7.3 billion, and part of that package was Java programming, used by Google in its Android platform. Mega money is riding on this suit, and everyone involved seems to want one thing, besides an eventual resolution, and that is cold, hard cash.

Apple and Samsung are also knocking heads over patent lawsuits relating to various mobile devices. It pretty much takes a lawyer or tech savvy individual to sort out all the jargon over who is suing for what and why and how much they want. Typically, when someone hears about a new patent infringement lawsuit, the first question asked is how much are they asking for? Kind of highlights the real reason for suing.

Some patent attorneys are not so certain Twitter’s IPA will work in the field, meaning they are not sure if it will be effective done unilaterally. (4) On the other hand, others, including well known venture capitalist Fred Wilson think it will change the way patents are used.(5)

Will this new IPA make a difference to the darker world of patent trolling and one company wanting to get money from another one just because they can? There are very few people who would disagree that patent trolling has become a virtual big business and is out of control. In fact, trolls have cost U.S. companies at least $500 billion. (9) However, will other companies follow suit and get onboard with Twitter?

There might be some serious consideration of making the move to shut down the loopholes that trolls often use to garner patents and then sue for infringement. The thing is, trolling is a lucrative business, as it is usually far easier for a company to pay the bridge troll what they demand, than to go to court and run the risk of having to pay out more. Their time to collect may be over if the IPA finds favor with other companies.