Twitter on Tuesday unveiled a proposed patent assignment framework that seeks to give employees who create works more protection over how their inventions are used.
"One of the great things about Twitter is working with so many talented folks who dream up and build incredible products day in and day out," Twitter's vice president of engineering, Adam Messinger, said in a blog post. "Like many companies, we apply for patents on a bunch of these inventions. However, we also think a lot about how those patents may be used in the future; we sometimes worry that they may be used to impede the innovation of others. For that reason, we are publishing a draft of the Innovator's Patent Agreement, which we informally call the 'IPA.'"
Under the plan, Twitter will promise its employees "that patents can only be used for defensive purposes," Messinger said. "We will not use the patents from employees' inventions in offensive litigation without their permission. What's more, this control flows with the patents, so if we sold them to others, they could only use them as the inventor intended."
The IPA, which Twitter plans to put in place later this year, represents "a significant departure from the current state of affairs in the industry," where typically employees sign over all of their rights to patents filed in connection with their work, according to Messinger.
Once in place, the IPA will "apply to all patents issued to our engineers, both past and present," Messinger added. Twitter is hoping to entice other companies to join its effort and has posted a draft of the IPA on Github in an effort to draw feedback, he wrote.
Twitter's move comes amid a flurry of patent-related litigation in the tech industry, including the high-profile lawsuit Oracle filed against Google over alleged Java intellectual-property violations in the Android mobile OS, which went to trial this week.
The IPA's intent does seem to go against the tide, according to attorney Scott Daniels, a partner with the Washington, DC, intellectual-property law firm of Westerman, Hattori, Daniels and Adrian.
"I have heard of companies pooling ownership of their patents in a single entity, but with restrictions on whom that entity may sue for infringement of those patents," Daniels said via email. "I have never heard, however, of the inventors retaining control of the enforceability of their patents."
"This approach is contrary to the general trend in the past few years to make it easier for companies to obtain and control the patents of their employees," Daniels added.
"Of course, there might [be] some play in the distinction between offense and defense -- what seems to one person to be defensive might seem aggressive to another person," he said.