Trade

Twitter Tweaks Software's Patent Problem

The software industry is in the middle of a multi-billion-dollar patent war. Everybody's suing everybody else for patent infrigement.

Software engineers, by and large, hate it. They see it as a legal nuisance that actually hurts innovation — the precise opposite of what patents are supposed to do, as we reported last year.

Twitter is doing something interesting to try and make its engineers happy. The company said yesterday that it won't use its patents to go out and sue other companies, unless the engineers who came up with the patents give their approval.

In a blog post yesterday, the company wrote:

...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.

That last part — about what happens if the company sells patents to other companies — is particularly striking. The patent war has turned patents themselves into big business. Microsoft recently paid $1 billion to buy and license patents from AOL.

Engineers think this is all noise. "Most of us who are in this business got into it to make stuff, not to own patents or be in patent litigation," Twitter's VP of engineering told NPR's Laura Sydell yesterday.

In our story last year, we talked to David Rose, an engineer whose patent was used not to build a new product, but simply to sue companies that were trying to build products.

"It's the hoarding and non-operating of the technology that doesn't feel good," Rose told us. "Because they didn't become the brand that they could have become. They had the protection. They could have built Flickr."

Instead, the company that owned his patent waited for someone else to build Flickr — then went out and sued Flickr.

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