Yahoo ‘weaponising’ patents to take on Facebook
A former Yahoo employee has attacked the company for using allegedly ambiguous software patents to ‘extort’ money from Facebook.
Andy Baio applied for eight patents while he worked at Yahoo from 2005. Four were subsequently granted, and Baio claims in a piece for Wired.com that he was assured his work would only be used defensively.
On Tuesday, however, Yahoo began suing Facebook for breaching ten of its patents in a move Baio calls “deplorable”.
Baio wrote that action is “nothing less than extortion, expertly timed during the SEC-mandated quiet period before Facebook’s IPO. It’s an attack on invention and the hacker ethic.”
The disputed patents relate to a range of procedures that Techcrunch pointed out are commonplace online, such as instant messaging, spam detection and privacy settings.
Baio’s Upcoming.org calendar site was acquired by Yahoo in 2005, and he says “we were asked to file patents for anything and everything we’d invented. Every Yahoo employee was encouraged to participate in their “Patent Incentive Program,” with sizable bonuses issued to everyone who took the time to apply.”
Employees were assured that Yahoo’s patent portfolio was “a precautionary measure, to defend against patent trolls and others who might try to attack Yahoo with their own holdings”.
Baio says “I thought I was giving them a shield, but turns out I gave them a missile with my name permanently engraved on it. I was naive. Even if the original intention was truly defensive, a patent portfolio can easily change hands, and a company can even more easily change its mind.”
Software patents have become controversial as Google, Facebook and other companies including BT have used them to seek to protect or extract revenue from competitors. Many argue, however, that the effect has been to hold back innovation by making it much more costly. Google recently put its multi-billion dollar acquisition of Motorola Mobility down to a desire to protect itself from patent lawsuits.
Baio joins the growing number calling for programming patents to be scrapped altogether: “Software patents should be abolished, plain and simple. Software is already covered by copyright, making patent protection unnecessary.”
Baio argues part of the problem lies in the nature of software development itself. “One of the patents I co-invented is so abstract, it could not only cover Facebook’s News Feed, but virtually any activity feed,” he says. “It puts into very sharp focus the trouble with software patents: Purposefully vague wording invites broad interpretation.”
Although Baio’s four patents are now among the more than 1,000 Yahoo currently holds, none are among the 10 that are the subject of this action.