Every Yahoo employee was encouraged to participate in their “Patent Incentive Program,” with sizable bonuses issued to everyone who took the time to apply.
Now, I’ve always hated the idea of software patents. But Yahoo assured us that their patent portfolio was a precautionary measure, to defend against patent trolls and others who might try to attack Yahoo with their own holdings. It was a cold war, stockpiling patents instead of nuclear arms, and every company in the valley had a bunker full of them.
Against my better judgement, I sat in a conference room with my co-founders and a couple of patent attorneys and told them what we’d created. They took notes and created nonsensical documents that I still can’t make sense of. In all, I helped Yahoo file eight patent applications.
Years after I left I discovered to my dismay that four of them were granted by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.
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. Since I left in 2007, Yahoo has had three CEOs and a board overhaul.
The scary part is that even the most innocuous patent can be used to crush another’s creativity. One of the patents I co-invented is so abstract, it could not only cover Facebook’s News Feed, but virtually any activity feed. It puts into very sharp focus the trouble with software patents: Purposefully vague wording invites broad interpretation.
In their complaint, Yahoo alleges that Facebook’s News Feed violates “Dynamic page generator,” a patent filed in 1997 by their former CTO related to the launch of My Yahoo, one of the first personalized websites. Every web application, from Twitter to Pinterest, could be said to violate this patent. This is chaos.
Patents and the intellectual arms race over owning creativity. This is NOT the protection for creatives the creators of copyright law had in mind – for huge corporations to buy them up en masse, to be wielded like enormous clubs to browbeat your competition and crush innovation.
And for every politician who claims these laws preserve American ingenuity, there are 10 actual inventors clamoring away for free in their basements, simply for the love of the work. It’s the money-grubbing corporate barons who really want this state of affairs to continue, not the average man it’s meant to protect.