Twitter Hashtag Inventor Explains Why Patenting It Would Have Been The Wrong Thing To Do

from the if-you-love-something,-set-it-free dept

Hashtags like #techdirt are not only an indispensable part of Twitter, but are also increasingly to be found elsewhere as a handy way of flagging up key topics in a compact and recognizable way. Given the monopoly-mad world we inhabit, it's something of a miracle that they weren't patented. Business Insider points out that Chris Messina, the former Google employee who came up with the idea in the first place, has explained precisely why he didn't try to patent them. The first reason is practical:

1. claiming a government-granted monopoly on the use of hashtags would have likely inhibited their adoption, which was the antithesis of what I was hoping for, which was broad-based adoption and support -- across networks and mediums.
Messina understands that monopolies tend to throttle the spread of ideas, and that's a big problem when you're trying to introduce something completely new. In fact, the idea of hashtags was so novel that Twitter apparently dismissed them at first according to an interview Messina gave to the Wall Street Journal:
"[Twitter] told me flat out, 'These things are for nerds. They're never going to catch on' "
Given that resistance, turning them into a monopoly that required licensing would have been the quickest way to ensure that nobody ever used them. But Messina's second reason is a recognition that his new hashtags were a tiny part of the greater Internet ecosystem, and since he had implicitly drawn from that wonderful pool of ideas in creating them, it was only right that he should give back:
2. I had no interest in making money (directly) off hashtags. They are born of the Internet, and should be owned by no one. The value and satisfaction I derive from seeing my funny little hack used as widely as it is today is valuable enough for me to be relieved that I had the foresight not to try to lock down this stupidly simple but effective idea.
Note, too, that Messina did derive some benefits from releasing his idea into the public domain. He has the deep satisfaction of seeing his idea spread far beyond Twitter, and of knowing that he had made that possible thanks to his wisdom and generosity. He can probably also draw some satisfaction from the fact that in setting his idea free in this way, he's in good company.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+



Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Skeptical Cynic (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:11am

    Another example of innovation being freed

    I know not directly related to this article but please support the patent troll legislation.

    https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/12/you-have-48-hours

    And Kudos to Chris Messina for being so forward thinking!!

     

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  2.  
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    Brazenly Anonymous, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:15am

    Unpatentable

    Seriously, the idea of an escape character to provide special meaning to a following character or string has tons of prior art as does sorting things based on specially designated keywords. Combining the two ideas is what we call obvious.

     

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  3.  
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    Skeptical Cynic (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:28am

    Re: Unpatentable

    Agreed, but obvious is not implemented.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:29am

    Re: Unpatentable

    The hash has also been used for this purpose in C/C++ as in:
    #include .....
    #if ....
    etc.

    This could well be where he got his inspiration.

     

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  5.  
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    Prenda, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:35am

    WooT!

    Gotta run, on my way to the patent office.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:36am

    Re: Unpatentable

    Not to mention I don't think something that's basically "Let people save their own searches/queries through entering custom defined key words" should be patentable.

    That would be like saying copy and paste should be patentable. Hashtags are basically a quick copy and paste of a filter/query through a large pile of data.

     

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  7. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:37am

    #belowtrivial

    This is what passes for a guru at Business Insider and Techdirt. Note subtle plug for Google, too.

    SO, who came up with the idea of one pixel images to facilitate tracking everyone whether they want to be or not? Probably a Google idea too.

    Just because a lot of people have gotten a lot of easy money off teh internets doesn't make it a plus overall: at the very least, the Internet enables spying on scale and in detail as never before.

    04:37:34[f-370-7] [ This suppresses the kids from fraud of using my screen name. ]

     

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  8.  
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    Ninja (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:38am

    Hmmm... #epicwin ?

     

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  9.  
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    Ninja (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:40am

    Re: #belowtrivial

    #schizophrenia #googleobssession #boringtroll #braincramps

    Also, don't speak in hashtag strings ppl.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Baron von Robber, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:57am

    Re: #belowtrivial

    ootb! Welcome back! We missed our Village Idiot. So does the MPAA/RIAA pay for your vactions as well as your posts here?

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:58am

    The first humans want to patent sex and breathing.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:59am

    Re: Unpatentable

    sorta of like 'click the button' to buy something... so obvious it could never be patented... oh wait damn it already is.

    I wonder how many other one click buttons have been patented...

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 9:17am

    Re: Re: Unpatentable

    I thought a '#' means a start of a comment...

     

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  14.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 9:30am

    Re: Re: Re: Unpatentable

    Not in C/C++, but yes in some other languages.

     

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  15.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 9:31am

    Re: Unpatentable

    Have you not been paying attention to the state of software patents? There is apparently nothing that is unpatentable.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 9:35am

    Re: Re: Re: Unpatentable

    It does in Python.

     

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  17.  
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    mdpopescu (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 9:36am

    Re:

    The apes have already copyrighted them.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 9:48am

    Shouldn't be patentable anyway. The HTML anchor pretty much nails prior art, and even that isn't original.

     

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  19.  
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    Lirodon, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 9:52am

    And...

    IRC channels have used similar syntax for naming (i.e. #techdirt) pretty much since the beginning.

     

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  20.  
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    Krish (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 11:07am

    Reminds me of the Identity chapter of the Hyperbole and a Half book: "isn't it awesome that I didn't patent this idea that was obvious and used for ages even though the patent wouldn't have held up and it would make me a laughingstock?"

    Good job!

     

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  21.  
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    Nick (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 12:02pm

    Re: And...

    Yes, I remember Chris has admitted elsewhere got the idea from IRC. Back then ('07 I think) the idea was you could create an adhoc facsimile of and IRC room by tweeting and searching (on a 3rd party site, I can't remember the name now) for hashtags.

     

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  22.  
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    kog999, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:07pm

    Re:

    rounder corners were apparently patent worth. this seems at least as patent worthy as that.

     

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  23.  
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    Chris Messina (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 4:42pm

    IRC was a heavy influence

    As I wrote in my original proposal, IRC was definitely an inspiration, as was Jaiku:

    http://factoryjoe.com/blog/2007/08/25/groups-for-twitter-or-a-proposal-for-twitter-tag-channel s/

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 6:34pm

    Re: Re: #belowtrivial

    Of course. What do you think that $80 million the MPAA is not going to get from Hotfile is supposed to pay for?

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 7:04pm

    Re: Re: Unpatentable

    Obvious means it's not patentable. And yes the # sign has been used as a hash tag many times in many places before twitter ever came along. They made it popular but did not invent it.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 7:43pm

    lol...I can understand why the creator of the hashtag did not try to patent it. IT IS NOT PATENTABLE.

     

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  27.  
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    BernardoVerda (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:48pm

    Re: Unpatentable

    Looking over some cases currently in litigation, that hardly appears to be a significant obstacle.

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 1:39am

    Re: Re: Unpatentable

    Ever heard of IRC?

     

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  29.  
    identicon
    vic kley, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 10:28pm

    Sweet of Chris to make # freely available within Twitter

    A nice touch Chris. Also the idea is no longer available for debate as to its obviousness.

    I don't need to point out that had you applied for a patent you would likely still be trying to obtain one and during this period your idea would be protected but you would not have a patent to license. So the free use of the # among the twitted would be unimpeded.

    Now my question have you ever actually successfully patented something?

     

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  30.  
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    Michael Kay, Dec 6th, 2013 @ 12:28am

    Unenforceable

    If the US patent office did grant a patent (and I'm sure they would, if you paid them), who exactly would be violating it? Anyone who uses that particular key on their keyboard? Anyone whose search engine indexes words beginning with # in exactly the same way that it indexes everything else?

    Thanks for the article. It shows the depths of absurdity to which patents have descended that this could even be seriously contemplated and discussed.

     

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  31.  
    identicon
    Jourdan Rystrom, Dec 19th, 2013 @ 5:50am

    #HashtagsAnonymous

    Ha...we thought Jack Dorsey (the creator of Twitter) invented hashtags. Whoops! Learned something new :)

    Does anyone need to go to this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vi-ll78Muto

    #HashtagsAnonymous

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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