Twitter said it would give its engineers a greater say in the rights to technology they invent, in an unusual move partly designed to reduce the wave of patent litigation sweeping over the tech industry.
If copied by other companies, as Twitter hopes, the idea could make it harder for tech companies to mount pre-emptive legal attacks against competitors, according to patent experts.
By giving individual inventors more control over how their technology is applied, the move would also address complaints from engineers that their patents are sometimes used aggressively by their employers to block or squeeze rivals.
“We have heard that it is important to our engineers. It is a proactive step to make Twitter an effective place to work,” said Adam Messinger, vice-president of engineering. Twitter hoped to “equalize the relationship between the company and its engineers [creating a]more balanced relationship,” he added. The move comes amid a hiring war in Silicon Valley, with Internet companies competing fiercely for the top talent.
Under the Twitter plan, the social media group will only be able to call on the patents for defensive legal action when either the company or its technology partners come under attack.
Employees at tech companies “often feel uncomfortable about how their patents are used,” said Julie Samuels at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, adding that this was “really great news for engineers at Twitter and other companies.” Yahoo caused waves last month with a pre-emptive legal attack on Facebook, drawing widespread criticism in Silicon Valley for its aggressive stance.
Many companies tell their engineers that they will not use patents aggressively but later abandon those promises, Mr. Messinger said. With a new type of patent licence called an Innovator’s Patent Agreement, Twitter would formalize the promise and leave it up to inventors if they want to see their patents used for more than defensive purposes, he added.
Under the new licence, engineers will retain their rights over the technology even if Twitter sells the patents. That could limit the power of so-called patent “trolls,” or companies set up specially to buy up patents and use them to sue successful tech concerns.
“If it’s broadly adopted, it would certainly make a dent in the patent troll industry,” Mr. Messinger said. Twitter has held discussions with other tech companies that have expressed an interest in using the new patent licence, he added, though he refused to name the companies concerned.