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, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Twitter Hashtag Inventor Explains Why Patenting It Would Have Been The Wrong Thing To Do”

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Anonymous Coward says:

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.

out_of_the_blue says:


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. ]

vic kley says:

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?

Michael Kay says:


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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