It looks like Twitter is taking a fresh approach to the huge, expensive mess that is the U.S. patent system, as outlined in a just-published blog post. The post summarizes something that Twitter is calling the Innovator’s Patent Agreement, which would commit the company to only use employee-invented patents “defensively” — any “offensive litigation” could only happen through the approval of the inventor.
In other words, Twitter is saying that it wants to hold patents just to make sure it doesn’t get sued by other patent holders — it won’t sue other companies without employee approval, except for “defensive” purposes. The agreement lays out a few definitions of what constitues a defensive lawsuit, you can read more detailed (and skeptical) analysis here. Twitter says that even if it sold its patents, the inventor-approval restriction would still apply.
The blog post says:
This is a significant departure from the current state of affairs in the 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’s PR team also sent over the following statement from Julie Samuels, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
It’s no secret that software patents can cause great harm for inventors, companies, and innovation, Twitter’s IPA gives those companies and inventors a powerful tool to take a system that’s broken and make it work for them, which in turn will benefit us all. I’m encouraged by Twitter’s announcement and look forward to seeing the IPA in action.
The company has published a draft of the agreement on GitHub for feedback. Twitter says it will adopt the IPA later this year, and that it will apply retroactively to all patents issued to Twitter engineers. Among other things, this is a great recruiting tool, especially at a time when patents and patent lawsuits are in the headlines. Now Twitter can tell potential employees: “Worried about that your employer might turn into a patent troll and use your work in a ridiculous lawsuit? Work for us instead!”
At the same time, it sounds like Twitter is hoping to see broader industry adoption, too — in addition to asking for feedback, the blog posts asks readers to discuss the IPA “with your companies.” Here’s hoping other companies follow Twitter’s lead.