Netizen Effects

Last week, Twitter did something big: they introduced a new patent assignment agreement that binds them to use their patent arsenal only for defensive purposes.  In an environment where things are getting ugly in software patent land, this is a bold move.

The agreement (here on GitHub), which they’ll use for upcoming work and also apply retroactively, enforces the intent by both requiring complete inventor approval for any non-defensive use, and further, by granting inventors the right to sub-license the work in the case that Twitter breaks its part of the agreement.

This is fascinating for lots of reasons, but I’ll focus on three:

First, because it’s a hack on the system — rather than attempting to make head-on patent law reform (a noble but unquestionably difficult cause), it creatively hacks a solution to the problem — quickly and without needing to ask anyone’s permission.  It’s beautiful that way, really.  Don’t like patent law?  Then let’s, collectively, change the way we use it — if it works, then we’ll have achieved the same goal with far less headache.

The second reason is that it’s a visible, powerful act of Internet Citizenship.  By adopting this Twitter is taking a step towards making the Internet a better place to work, invent, and start a business.  Of course, this value is not uncontroversial: this article on PE Hub gets at some of the tensions from the perspective of VCs and entrepreneurs:

“Regardless of your political beliefs, fundamentally, VCs have a fiduciary duty to our investors, and this structure does not enhance shareholder value,” says Ganesan. In the end, he adds, “My LPs don’t fund me to create change; they fund me to create returns.”

Still others argue that there are powerful cultural reasons why this patent reform initiative can’t simply be dismissed. “This newer generation of VCs has a much more progressive agenda,” notes economist-investor Paul Kedrosky. “Whereas other VCs take a more orthodox asset management view, which is: ‘These are the dials I have to turn to maximize value,’ [people like Wilson] think you can build a healthier ecosystem for the future.’”

Fred Wilson’s point, from the article, and expounded on in his post on the USV blog, is that restricting the use of software and business method patents levels the playing field, and encourages companies of all sizes to compete based on features and experience, not using weaponized patents.  Even if a single company could stand to profit from this type of activity, his point is that getting away from it is good for the ecosystem as a whole.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting point is that this is likely to have Netizen Effects.

By that, I mean that Twitter’s actions should ripple through the Internet ecosystem, as other tech cos, startups and VCs adopt this and similar policies (either for the good or the ecosystem, or simply to compete for engineer love w/ Twitter).  This is where things get really interesting.  It’s possible that we could see a major shift in the way internet companies approach this area of intellectual property strategy, as a result of a visible, repeatable, netizen hack.

That’s exciting and I hope we can figure out how to support more of this kind of thing.