Yahoo proved this week that it is very easy to go from patent defense to patent troll. In today's lawsuit happy climate it is common practice for companies to stockpile patents to be used in defense of their work. With so many patents out there it has become a sort of arms race. Most are afraid to sue because they are afraid of being sued.
Former developer Andy Baio was shocked when he heard the news of Yahoo's patents lawsuit, and like many us, a little disgusted. Actually, more than a little; as a former Yahoo employee, with a few patents of his own, this one really hit home.
Upon hire at Yahoo, Baio was asked to participate in the companies "Patent Incentive Program," offering big bonuses to anyone that applied.
Yahoo assured Baio that the software patents were a precautionary step, only to be used defensively. If another company attacked Yahoo with their holdings, they would have some of their own to fight back with. Baio described it as a "cold war, stockpiling patents instead of nuclear arms, and every company in the valley had a bunker full of them."
Baio went along with it, meeting with patent attorneys, who authored documents and diagrams that Baio, the creator of the program, didn't even understand. These patents were so broad in scope and vague in wordage they could have covered any number of softwares on the market.
Though none of Baio's patents have been used in the current lawsuit, he says they were so abtract they could have encompassed Facebooks Newsfeed, or any other activity feed for that matter.
He points out a particular patent in the lawsuit that protects a "Dynamic page generator." By Yahoo's definition, every web application in existence is in violation of the patent.
"Yahoo’s lawsuit against Facebook is an insult to the talented engineers who filed patents with the understanding they wouldn’t be used for evil. Betraying that trust won’t be forgotten, but I doubt it matters anymore. Nobody I know wants to work for a company like that," Baio writes.
"Yahoo tried and failed, over and over again, to build a social network that people would love and use. Unable to innovate, Yahoo is falling back to the last resort of a desperate, dying company: litigation as a business model."
It really is a shame that it was Yahoo! to take these actions, a company that broke ground on so many levels in the 90's. They may have been the first to introduce some of these concepts, but there is a big difference in basic structure and a fully formed vision.