Hacking the Patent System


See the new white paper.

For many startups, the patent system is a necessary evil. Getting a patent can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, and getting sued by a patent troll can cost millions. Despite these costs, and the other lost resources that come with them (lost employee and engineer time, stress, etc.), many startups find themselves feeling like it’s good business to file for patents. Traditionally, this was for a couple of reasons: 1) to use defensively if another company threatened a lawsuit (e.g., you sue me? I’ll sue you right back); or 2) to secure investment.

Over time, both of those rationales have proved to be false. First, owning a patent is no defense for a patent troll suit. Since a patent troll usually neither makes nor sells anything, it can’t be threatened with a lawsuit. Second, more and more investors report that they don’t care about their portfolio companies owning patents.

We think these broken rationales are proof of a patent system that has become unmoored. And recently we’ve been working hard to fix that through legislation -- you might have heard the news yesterday that the latest attempt at comprehensive patent reform died in the Senate.

This now leaves startups with a few bad choices: participate in the patent system and spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (excluding the cost of enforcing those patents!), or don’t, but still find yourself facing lawsuits and other threats that come with sitting the system out.

So, together with EFF and OIN, we’re releasing a white paper prepared by Marta Belcher and John Casey from the Juelsgaard Intellectual Property Clinic at Stanford Law School. The paper is for startups and small businesses that want to understand some of their non-traditional licensing options. As we say in the paper:

“The traditional model of patent licensing—whereby a company pays a patent owner to license an invention that the company legitimately uses—has been hijacked by non-practicing entities (“patent trolls”) and other aggressive patent holders who assert overbroad patents that never should have been granted in the first place. Within this broken patent regime, companies are increasingly hacking the system—that is, finding alternatives to the traditional patent licensing model in order to both promote open innovation and protect the companies themselves. These patent system hacks can be organized into two broad categories: (1) defensive patent aggregators, which pool member companies’ resources to defensively purchase patents for the group and to fight patent trolls, and (2) patent pledges, whereby companies opt to openly and defensively license their patents to others.”

One example of an alternative is Twitter’s Innovators Patent Agreement (IPA). The IPA is simple: like most companies, Twitter asks its employees to assign their patents to the company. But, in exchange, Twitter promises it won’t use that patent to sue anyone, except for defensive purposes. Importantly, this promise travels with the patent, so even if Twitter sells it, the new owner cannot offensively sue without the permission of the original inventor. This kind of deal helps in hiring, since many software engineers scoff at software patents. It also helps Twitter’s brand, as a company that has taken a strong stand against a broken patent system.

This paper is intended as a guide to more solutions like this. Some might work for you, and some might not, but we think any commitment to patent defense is a step in the right direction.