With patent trolls and patent wars creating a massive drag on innovation, a number of companies have investigated ways to navigate the patent system while still promoting openness and competition. Twitter has been especially active in this space—both by fighting back against patent trolls and in giving its own developers a voice through its Innovator’s Patent Agreement (IPA).
When Twitter first proposed the IPA we welcomed it as a creative way to ensure that patents do not fall into the hands of trolls or otherwise become used as weapons. Under the IPA, when a developer assigns a patent to Twitter, the company promises that it will only use the patent for defensive purposes. If the patent is asserted for any other reason, Twitter needs the inventor’s permission. This means that the inventor won’t later be surprised and disappointed to discover her work has been weaponized for an offensive lawsuit. The promise of the IPA is designed to stay with the patent so, even if Twitter sells or otherwise transfers the patent to another company, the inventor can still veto offensive use (this makes the patent effectively useless for trolls).
Today Twitter officially launched the IPA by applying it to U.S. Patent No. 8,448,084 (on pull-to-refresh technology). On the one hand, we are far from thrilled to see money and time devoted to adding one more twig to the thicket of software patents. But today's patent landscape has pressured companies into arming themselves with defensive portfolios. Agreements like the IPA can be a strong signal that a company remains committed to competing in the marketplace rather than the courts. Others are already following Twitter’s lead. We are thrilled to see that four firms—Stack Exchange, Tell Apart, Jelly and Lift—have already said they will apply the IPA to their own patents.
We still need fundamental changes to the patent system to deal with the flood of low quality software patents and the explosion of patent trolling. But the IPA is a promising development and a great way to empower innovators. If the IPA is widely adopted we should see fewer lawsuits, more competition, and inventors having a bigger voice.