YC’s Patent Pledge Asks Tech Companies To Grant Startups Patent Immunity

Y Combinator is about to wield its rapidly-growing influence in the tech community to help startups everywhere. And it’s taking on one of the hottest (and most fear-inspiring) issues around: patents.

Today YC cofounder Paul Graham has written a note called The Patent Pledge in which he proposes that tech companies should commit to a straightforward promise: “No first use of software patents against companies with less than 25 people.”

That’s the entire pledge. There’s no legalese or confusing conditions around it. But it could shake things up for tech companies in a big way. More important: unlike government intervention, which would likely take years, YC’s Patent Pledge could be widely adopted in a much shorter timeframe. YC has set up a site at ThePatentPledge.org that lists a roster of the companies that have agreed to the pledge, which already includes fourteen well-known YC alumni like Airbnb, Disqus, Hipmunk, and Weebly.

Now, lately you’ve heard a lot about patents with respect to mobile devices — Google is widely believed to have been interested in acquiring Motorola largely because of the latter’s large patent trove, which it can use to defend itself against Apple and Microsoft. But this isn’t an issue that’s particular to mobile, or even big companies. Graham says that one of the biggest concerns new founders often have is whether an incumbent competitor (with a large legal team) will try to kill them off early on by threatening them with patent suits.

Graham’s proposal is for tech companies to publicly commit to the pledge above, which would ameliorate some of these concerns, at least for companies just getting off the ground. Graham likens the pledge to Google’s “Don’t be evil” mantra, in that it will help attract the best kind of people. From Graham’s post:

The patent pledge is in effect a narrower but open source “Don’t be evil.” I encourage every technology company to adopt it. If you want to help fix patents, encourage your employer to.

Already most technology companies wouldn’t sink to using patents on startups. You don’t see Google or Facebook suing startups for patent infringement. They don’t need to. So for the better technology companies, the patent pledge requires no change in behavior. They’re just promising to do what they’d do anyway. And when all the companies that won’t use patents on startups have said so, the holdouts will be very conspicuous.

Of course, this isn’t going to solve the broader patent issues by any means. It obviously doesn’t help larger companies, like Google in its multiple battles over Android. And it doesn’t protect startups against patent trolls, who couldn’t care less if they’re detested — because they already are.

But Graham says that at least as far as startups are concerned, patent trolls are far less worrisome to entrepreneurs than incumbent competitors looking to stifle competition. The trolls, he explains, are just looking to get money — while the competitors are hoping to wield their patents to kill startups off.

I’ll be curious to see how far the Patent Pledge spreads. As Graham says in the article, companies like Facebook and Google aren’t out suing startups because they don’t have to, and I expect we’ll see them opt into the pledge quickly. As for those companies that are less startup-friendly, I expect we’ll hear a lot of hemming and hawing — and I hope YC and the community really holds their feet to the fire.

Graham closes his post, which is worth reading in its entirety, with the following:

Companies that use patents on startups are attacking innovation at
the root.  Now there’s something any individual can do about this
problem, without waiting for the government: ask companies where
they stand.