When a group of investors pooled their resources a few weeks ago to put a bid in to buy Skype from eBay, I thought there was a good chance that Skype’s legal woes were behind them. Apparently, I was wrong, and a new lawsuit makes it clear just how bad the situation is for Skype.
Sure, Skype doesn’t own its core P2P technology, and founders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom were trying to rip that IP out of the service. But that’s all old news from months ago. Surely those new investors wouldn’t have committed to paying $1.9 billion for 65% of a company that didn’t control its IP?
At the time of the deal, people close to the transaction told me that the new investors had a much better relationship with Niklas and Janus than eBay, and the situation would soon be worked out. Our best guess was the two would be given a piece of Skype, and possibly a board seat, and the litigation would be dropped.
But that isn’t the case, it seems. This new intellectual property lawsuit against former Joost CEO Mike Volpi and venture capital firm Index Ventures really has nothing to do with Joost at all. It’s all about control and ownership of Skype, and it’s a signal that the dispute is nowhere near over.
What’s most interesting about the lawsuit is a single disclosure early in the lawsuit complaint. Not only does Skype not own the core P2P technology underlying the service, but they don’t even have access to the source code (emphasis added):
A source code version of the GI Software is licensed by Joltid to Joost, allowing Joost to be the first company to successfully deliver television and other video content in real-time over a peer-to-peer network. An executable-only object code form of the GI Software was licensed by Joltid to Skype, a well-known Internet-based company that provides users throughout the world with free or low-cost telephone services over the Internet. Skype did not obtain a license to the GI Software source code, however, and the license it did obtain was terminated based on Skype’s breaches of the license agreement.
And this bit of information singlehandedly explains possibly the entire history of Skype over the last few years. Want to know why they never opened up to developers in a meaninful way? It’s because they couldn’t. They can’t even tweak their own core source code to allow it. Skype has never disclosed this, but it must be a source of monumental frustration for them.
That frustration boiled over in an interview I did with Skype last week, where they made it very clear that they want to, and plan to, open up widely to developers. But until this litigation is cleared up, and Skype has access to the actual source code that runs its service, that isn’t going to happen.
This new litigation could tank the acquisition. Or it could change it materially. Or it could result in a big compromise where Niklas and Janus take a big role in the new Skype. But whatever happens, it has very little to do with Mike Volpi and Index Ventures. The real story here is that Skype is restrained from innovating because they don’t own their own IP. In fact, they can’t even see the core IP.