You Don't Need A Mythical Club Membership To Call Yahoo's Patent Threat Against Facebook Desperate
from the now-where's-my-membership-card? dept
We just wrote about Yahoo admitting to the world that it was done and cooked as an innovative company when it chose to threaten to sue Facebook over patents. Plenty of other commentators wrote similar stories. We’ve all seen this pattern before: Company that used to lead the market, but has become an also-ran, suddenly pops up with patents to sue the hot new thing. It’s a sad statement of a company that just can’t compete any more. However, in a really, really bizarre screed, hedge fund investor Eric Jackson seems to suggest there’s a crazy conspiracy of hypocritical bloggers making these statements.
It should be noted that Jackson has a bit of a reputational stake here: four months ago, he specifically called on Yahoo to do exactly what it’s doing now. So, now he seems to want to defend this turf, but his argument is bizarre and nonsensical. It starts off with a crazy conspiracy theory about how Silicon Valley bloggers have a special “clubby” relationship with VCs:
If you’re a blogger, you play nice to keep future sources happy (unless you’re someone like Kara Swisher and reached another level of appreciation/admiration). If you’re a VC, what makes your $10 million check more valuable than the next guy’s? Of course, you’re going to be nice. It’s all about access for these non-engineers. If you’ve been black-balled in Palo Alto – whether you’re a VC, blogger, or PR person — what advantage do you have?
Considering that I am a “Silicon Valley blogger” and have been around and doing this longer than anyone he mentions, I find this curious. I know it’s become a popular talking point lately — this supposed close relationship between VCs and bloggers — but I seem to get by just fine without such relationships (yeah, I know some VCs, but I don’t recall ever using one as a source, other than on information they stated publicly — so not as a “scoop”). As for “what advantage” you have, if you don’t have VCs feeding you information, that’s a ridiculous question. Plenty of blogs have advantages in the community of readers they have and the analysis and insight they provide. Jackson seems to believe that the way a blogger can provide value is by being first. He’s wrong.
He follows this up with an argument that doesn’t make any sense at all — something about the fact that new nominees to Yahoo’s board are all from New York… and that means something crazy about the “negative reputational effects” it would have on anyone in Silicon Valley to serve on Yahoo’s board. I have no idea what this means. I can’t think of any negative reputational effect it could possibly have. He also mentions the “open secret among Silicon Valley elites that Yahoo! is in great need of reform.” Wait. That’s an “open secret”? How about it’s not a secret at all. It’s common sense to anyone who has watched Yahoo fade from glory and fail to actually keep up in the marketplace. Suggesting all this stuff about “open secrets,” “Silicon Valley elites,” and “reputational effects” just makes it sound like there’s a conspiracy going on where there’s none. Someone has hit the paranoia sauce hard.
What does all of this have to do with patents? I have no freaking idea. And neither does Jackson, who transitions with the grace of a rhinoceros ballerina, by simply switching to the patent question and insisting that this somehow “proves” the nonsense he just spouted.
But the vocal, nonsensical, and hypocritical response this morning to Yahoo! serving Facebook notice that it’s in violation of 10 – 20 key patents by several Silicon Valley watchers takes this clubbiness to new heights.
A bunch of veteran Silicon Valley observers, who know damn well what Yahoo’s move is a sign of, isn’t evidence of any “clubbiness.” It’s evidence that a bunch of people who know this space have seen this train wreck before. He then attempts to explain the “two big problems” with people pointing out that Yahoo’s actions are a bad sign.
The merits of their assertion that anyone claiming intellectual property rights is somehow a “troll” and “not innovating.” When did we decide that IP is reprehensible? I missed that lesson at blogging school.
Er. It’s not “blogging school.” It’s just Silicon Valley (and history) in general. We believe in innovating in the marketplace, not fighting in the courtrooms for the most part. A study last year suggested that somewhere between 70% and 80% of folks in Silicon Valley are generally distrustful of patents. I learned that by paying attention to reality. Not blogging school.
Should no company be able to “innovate” something without it immediately being copied by dozens of other firms? Is mass copycatting preferable to having rule of law saying someone should be able to come up with a new idea — as recognized by an impartial third party — and then have that idea protected for some period of time (not forever)?
Actually, there have been studies and research that suggest that despite Jackson’s mocking rhetoric, indeed, yes, the ability to copycat is preferable to monopolies on ideas. Why? Because merely being a copycat isn’t particularly effective. First movers have an advantage, and you win in the marketplace not by copying, but by out-innovating and providing something better. Even better, as others copy you and try to out innovate you, you get to learn from them too. And thus, innovation accelerates. That’s a good thing.
If Sarah Lacy et al. find IP so reprehensible, I would ask them: are you arguing for Silicon Valley to be a place much closer to China where Internet firms can engage in mass copycatting immediately as a normal course of business? Is that what you want? Is that what your sources at Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, and all the other great Web 2.0 companies of the future want?
It’s already the normal course of business for the most part. We see copying happen all the time, and history has shown that’s where much of Silicon Valley’s innovative nature comes from. And I have no idea what the sources at these companies want — but in general, yes, most of the folks I know in Silicon Valley seem to prefer to compete in the marketplace. I was at a roundtable of entrepreneurs not too long ago, meeting with some federal officials, discussing patents, and the officials seemed to expect that everyone would talk about the importance of more patents. Instead, every single entrepreneur talked about how patents were a distraction and a hindrance to their business. Multiple entrepreneurs talked about how they didn’t care if people copied them, because they understood their own customers better and were already ahead in the market. Jackson seems to ignore all of this.
The obvious hypocrisy between these Valley-types criticizing Yahoo! and yet whistling past the Cupertino graveyard with Apple is what’s really galling to me. If all of you are so incensed by a company protecting its IP rights, why are you not picketing in front of Tim Cook‘s house? Hasn’t Apple pursued this line of defense/offense for its business most aggressively of anyone in the Valley?
It goes back to clubbiness. One of the rules of the Valley is that no one criticizes Apple (or Google for that matter).
Geez. I guess all those blog posts above don’t exist. And, honestly, that’s just crazy talk. I know tons of “Silicon Valley bloggers” who criticize Apple (and “Google for that matter”) all the time. Just for the hell of it, since all the links above are about Apple, here are some criticizing Google too, for “that matter.”
Does Jackson even read the blogs he’s slamming?
And for those saying that Yahoo! caved to Wall Street pressure to launch a patent fight now against Facebook prior to its IPO, this avoids looking at some key facts. Starting in 2005, Yahoo! began to make a concerted effort to develop its patent portfolio. According to PatentVest, Yahoo! was granted 20 patents in 2002 by the US PTO, 50 in 2006, 80 in 2008, 300 in 2010, and 325 in 2011. One of the key IP lawyers at Yahoo! in 2006 left the company shortly thereafter to take a more senior job at Google doing the same thing.
All companies in Silicon Valley recognized this trend and began investing in protecting their IP starting in 2006. Yahoo! was one of many doing this. When Yahoo! began growing its portfolio, it was before anyone realized Facebook was going to be the size it is today. Of course, Yahoo! famously tried to buy Facebook for $1 billion in 2006 — which was seen as an outlandish number to pay at the time by the blogosphere.
This is a convenient rewriting of history. While he’s right that many companies in Silicon Valley started investing heavily in obtaining patents around that time, it wasn’t to use them as an offensive weapon — but as a defensive weapon against silly lawsuits from dying companies… like what we’re seeing with Yahoo today.
Which brings us to today. Yahoo! has a case against Facebook. It might have cases against others in the future. Yahoo!’s owned by its shareholders – not the clubby bloggers of Silicon Valley.
Let the bloggers do what they need to do to protect their self-interests. Yahoo! will do the same.
But that’s the thing: this strategy never works. That’s what the bloggers were saying. Because we’ve seen it. The companies that start suing more nimble, more successful competitors over patents, always end up failing in the long run. That’s why it’s a clear indicator of a company that’s done innovating. Breaking out the “sue over patents” folder is a key sign of a company that knows it can’t compete. Because when you can beat the competition by innovating, suing over patents is always seen as a waste of time.
Shareholders in Yahoo — and Jackson admits that he is one — may get some short term benefits, if it happens to get a chunk of cash from some company, but when a company that fits Yahoo’s profile starts suing over patents, it’s a clear, clear sign that it’s time to short that stock. The company has given up.
And I’m still wondering when I get invited into this supposed “club.”