Former Yahoo Employee Regrets How Yahoo Patented His Work

from the this-is-how-it-happens dept

It's become fairly standard in Silicon Valley for companies to apply for a bunch of patents, even though the vast majority of software developers hate patents and think they're a disaster that holds back innovation. Yet people are told time and time again that companies simply have to file for patents, to put together a stockpile to be used defensively. Companies that don't do so are mocked. Over the years Google has been mocked for not having enough patents, as has HTC and, most recently, Facebook. All of those companies eventually start ramping up their patenting effort -- all while insisting to the engineers that it's just for defensive purposes. But, even if that's meant to be the case, things change, and companies that swear patents are only used defensively either change management or are acquired, and suddenly those "defensive-only" patents are offensive weapons (and I mean offensive in multiple ways here).

Former Yahoo employee Andy Baio reacted to the news of Yahoo's stupid patent lawsuit against Facebook the way much of the internet world did: with pure disdain. But, in his case, it's personal. Even though (thankfully) none of the patents with his name on them are in this particular suit, he knows that Yahoo has four patents with his name on them... and he very much regrets going along with the effort to patent things. He talks about how after Yahoo acquired his startup Upcoming.org, they asked him to get patenting.

After we moved in, we were asked to file patents for anything and everything we’d invented while working on Upcoming.org. Every Yahoo employee was encouraged to participate in their “Patent Incentive Program,” with sizable bonuses issued to everyone who took the time to apply.

Now, I’ve always hated the idea of software patents. But Yahoo assured us that their patent portfolio was a precautionary measure, to defend against patent trolls and others who might try to attack Yahoo with their own holdings. It was a cold war, stockpiling patents instead of nuclear arms, and every company in the valley had a bunker full of them.

Against my better judgement, I sat in a conference room with my co-founders and a couple of patent attorneys and told them what we’d created. They took notes and created nonsensical documents that I still can’t make sense of. In all, I helped Yahoo file eight patent applications.

Years after I left I discovered to my dismay that four of them were granted by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.

I thought I was giving them a shield, but turns out I gave them a missile with my name permanently engraved on it.

He insists that he'll never let that happen again, but it's a good lesson for others. Those who claim that they're only getting patents for defensive purposes have to recognize that those patents may not always be under benevolent control. You are creating a weapon -- a potentially broadly powerful and destructive weapon. And while you can hope it won't be used, that's rarely your choice in the long run.
The scary part is that even the most innocuous patent can be used to crush another’s creativity. One of the patents I co-invented is so abstract, it could not only cover Facebook’s News Feed, but virtually any activity feed. It puts into very sharp focus the trouble with software patents: Purposefully vague wording invites broad interpretation.
This is the world we live in... and it's a big, big problem for innovation.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Prisoner 201, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 7:53am

    Without the ROI offered by patents, he would never have started Upcoming.org in the first place!

    Ohwai..

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:03am

    Nonsensical

    It's very telling that even the developer that created the patented software calls the patent a nonsensical document.

     

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  3.  
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    Chosen Reject (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:09am

    Re: Nonsensical

    If he truly felt that way, he shouldn't have created the patent. My company (a very well known company) has started pushing really hard for patents recently (at least in my department) including making a goal for everyone to submit at least one patent application every year. I told them in no uncertain terms that if that becomes a requirement for employment, then they can have my resignation right now. Thankfully I still have my job, but the more they push for it, the more I consider leaving.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:17am

    I am sure he very happily cashed the paychecks all the while.

     

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  5.  
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    Rekrul, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:18am

    The sad part is that he hadn't patented his ideas, someone else would have...

     

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  6.  
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    Mike42 (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:30am

    Re: Re: Nonsensical

    Hindsight is 20/20.

     

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  7.  
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    Mike42 (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:34am

    Hmm...

    If they techinal person who signed off on a patent decides that it really wasn't novel or was signed under duress (not signing is certainly a CLM), can he/she petition to have his/her name removed?

    Seems like we'd get rid of an awful lot of patents if this was allowed.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:38am

    All software patents are invalid

    That's it. Someone needs to stop this madness, declare them all invalid, throw out all the litigation, and let us get back to the work of creating the future.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:49am

    Re: Re: Nonsensical

    "If he truly felt that way, he shouldn't have created the patent."

    Tell that to google, who started acquiring patents a little late in the game after being sued left and right for frivolous reasons and suddenly they needed defensive patents.

     

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  10.  
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    TtfnJohn (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:50am

    As the developer points out while what he created may not have been nonsense the documents the lawyers drew up were and that is the basis that Yahoo is using to sue Facebook.

    It's not like this wasn't predicted right from the start of the silliness of software patents or that "minor" little details like prior art and all the rest of the requirements to actually get a patent would be lost in the shuffle.

    With the USPTO mistaking the number of patents issued with productivity the situation immediately got worse.

    It would be nice if someone, somewhere put the entire notion of patents for software to sleep for a few decades or more.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:51am

    Re: Re: Re: Nonsensical

    (and now when you buy an Android, like $5 per sale or so goes to Microsoft. For work that Google/Motorola did. Talk about rewarding failures).

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 8:58am

    Re: Nonsensical

    Per the individual, "They took notes and created nonsensical documents that I still can’t make sense of."

    Sounds to me that he is either making this up or in filing these applications perjured himself.

    Every patent application that is filed with the USPTO must include an oath that in pertinent part provides:

    I hereby state that I have reviewed and understand the contents of the above identified application, including the claims, as amended by any amendment specifically referred to above.
    .
    .
    .

    I hereby declare that all statements made herein of my own knowledge are true and that all statements made on information and belief are believed to be true; and further that these statements were made with the knowledge that willful false statements and the like so made are punishable by fine or imprisonment, or both, under 18 U.S.C. 1001 and that such willful false statements
    may jeopardize the validity of the application or any patent issued thereon.


    If he is to be believed, then he obviously wilfully misstated a fact, and then compounded the problem associated with what he had done by declaring that all facts he recited were truthful and that he understood he was subject to penalty of perjury.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I tend not to lend much credence to things said by people who take liberties with the truth.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:00am

    Re: Hmm...

    No, he should be considered for prosecution as having submitted a false oath.

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:07am

    I had to sign away any rights to any patentable inventions just to get hired at my current workplace. When you can't get a job without signing a contract like that, how do patents really benefit inventors?

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:08am

    YaWho?? O_O I figured they would have died out by now lol..

     

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  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:41am

    Re: Re: Nonsensical

    So your only defense against a blatant misuse of the patent system is an obvious attempt at poisoning the well and saying the man is a liar?

    Oh the poor, poor state of the uneducated shills on Techdirt these days.

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:43am

    Re: Re: Hmm...

    However, he's not the one who really wrote the patent in the first place, the company lawyers were. The people who understood the least about the technology wrote it so it was as broad and overreaching as possible. If you read the article, you would know this.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:46am

    Re:

    This is truth.

    I can see the troll spamming "OMGOMGOMGOMG HE PERJURED HIMSELF" forgetting that he wasn't the one who drew up the patent in the first place. He only invented the technology.

    Forcing people to transfer ownership of their patents should be criminalized in a world that was truly out to help the inventor. But since this is a world meant to stuff as much money as possible into the pockets of big business, we'll likely be stuck with it for a while.

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:50am

    Re: Re: Re: Nonsensical

    No, I am saying that one who admits having lied in a matter involving patents is not a source I am inclined to place faith in the veracity of his statements. Most of what he says is hearsay, the accuracy of which cannot be verified, and the one thing that is not hearsay indicates that he was not true to the oath he took when his applications were submitted to the USG.

    If this is poisoning the well in your mind then so be it. It still does not change the fact he has admitted he did not tell the truth when he signed his oath.

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:52am

    Re: Re: Re: Nonsensical

    And now with Motorola they've gone full circle and become the patent trolls they hated.

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 9:59am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Nonsensical

    . Most of what he says is hearsay, the accuracy of which cannot be verified, and the one thing that is not hearsay indicates that he was not true to the oath he took when his applications were submitted to the USG.


    Yes, him regretting filing patents, or the fact he has his name on them, or the fact that yahoo took ownership of it in his name is just hearsay despite the fact that you can look up all of this information.

    It takes a pretty big man to own up to his mistakes like he did, but a little cowardly man to play keyboard ninja and criticize him for coming out and admitting the system is flawed.

     

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  22.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 10:01am

    Re: Re: Hmm...

    Furthermore, he wasn't the one who initially submitted it, and it could be argued that he signed it under pressure from his employer.

    No matter who you're trying to defend in this, all sides look completely dirty in this affair.

     

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  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 10:56am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Nonsensical

    Yes, it does take a big man to declare that he filed a false oath in violation of 18 USC 1001. It also points to a man who criticizes "nonsensical documents" that he was supposed to review and correct so that they were not nonsensical. Perhaps he should be a bit more introspective before running off at the mouth. Stuff like what he did and said can get him in big trouble, not only with the feds but with his former employer.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 11:12am

    Re: Re: Nonsensical

    Maybe he didn't have the luxury of resigning.

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 11:21am

    "This is the world we live in... and it's a big, big problem for innovation."

    The world called USA. The world doesnt care about sw patents.

     

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  26.  
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    tracker1 (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 1:55pm

    I always strike out that line...

    Whenever I sign an employment contract, I strike out that line... generally without issue, and state that work for hire on company time, on premises is the company's, and will sign that, but never "all works" or similar wording.

     

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  27.  
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    tracker1 (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 1:57pm

    The world.

    The rest of the world is going in the same direction. Just look at Britain, the EU, Australia and other countries. China's IP system is even more messed up in a lot of ways. If you think it's *just* the USA, you're not paying attention.

     

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  28.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 2:13pm

    Re:

    Not only that, but most software engineering employment contracts with major firms require that you assist your employer in their efforts to obtain patents. If you refuse, you have violated the terms of the contract.

     

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

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 4:48pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Nonsensical

    You do realise what happens to engineers who presume to correct the work of lawyers, don't you?

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 5:02pm

    I bet he does not regret the money Yahoo pays him while he worked for them, and all the nice things that money gave him.

    I bet he still puts yahoo proudly on his resume, and probably the fact that in the course of his employment with yahoo he developed something uniquie enough to gain a patent.

    He was being paid by yahoo, that is his reward, he could of chosen NOT to accept their money, or to even work for them.

    fact is he chose to work for yahoo, he chose to take their money, and was happy to do so.. just because he now think he should be paid twice, or does not agree with how the world works just shows that his greed exceeds that of his obligations. AND he got a freaking bonus for it as well..

    just another whinning pathetic wanker.

     

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  31.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 5:15pm

    Re: Re: Hmm...

    His choice was: (1) Cooperate with the patenting, (2) Get sacked. If he does not want stretches of unemployment on his resume, he is going to pick (1) every time. Buying a house and feeding your family cost money, remember?

     

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  32.  
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    Cody Jackson (profile), Mar 15th, 2012 @ 5:20pm

    Patents != Innovation

    One thing I always found funny when Steve Jobs talked about the number of patents they had on the iPad/iPhone (I don't remember which). For several minutes in his keynote speech, he talked about the dozens of patents Apple applied for/received on the device, and people made a big deal of it both at the speech and in the media.

    Prior to getting hooked on TechDirt, I probably would have been like "Hmm, impressive but irrelevant". Now, I realize that it is completely meaningless, especially with the number of lawsuits by other companies that these patents were supposed to protect Apple from.

    If you are still sued even though you have patents, what is the point of spending all the time and money to get patents?

     

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  33.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 5:28pm

    Re: Re:

    do you know what a 'contract' is ? if you resuse you resuse to accept the contract, that is YOUR CHOICE, what are you saying they like the getting paid part, but not the 'doing work' part?

    Do you think these contracts are accepted and entered into to allow these software engineers to work for themselves, and not to provide any value in return for the agreed money they are being paid in compliance with the contract ?

    Get over it, again, no one forced them to sign the contract, they could have said NO, and worked for someone else, or worked for themselves.

    just like musicians and artics, they enter a contract, they SIGN it, and they read it and agree with it (otherwise why sign it ?).

    Do you sign contracts that you dont agree with, or have not read?

    having worked as a contract engineer and scientist for many years, I have had to write and submit a number of patents for methods or procedures applied to leading edge technology.

    My employer paid for the patent lawyers, the searches and my wage (very high wage as well), it's my name on the patents, but the company that employed me on that contract basis owns that patent. I dont have to make that patent profitable for the company. I got what I wanted from my work, and my contractural obligations, and the company I worked for got what they wanted, it is a win, win.

    I get money, and get to say I have invented things that have been patented, I do not have to take on the expense or risk of that patent not making any money, or that the patented technology will not be financially viable (most patented things never become a commercial success), but that is how the world works, you work for income to survive, if you work for FORD you do not expect to be able to take home all the product you help to build, you know that at the end of the week you get some CASH MONEY, that is enough for most to happily work, and think GOOD ON MY EMPLOYER, if he can make money because of the work I have done for them, that is WHY IM HERE, because if they make profit from my work, they are able to keep paying me..

    if you dont like others profiting of the work you have allready profited from, then DONT WORK in the first place.

    You can always do what Masnick does, and spend your life trying to profit from the work of others, neven creating anything yourself, if that makes you happy go for it...

    If Masnick could only patent "CUT-PASTE-COMMENT" he would be very rich indeed.

     

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  34.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 15th, 2012 @ 5:32pm

    Re: The world.

    China enjoys the delights of selective enforcement. That is, the real laws are different from the ones on the books. If you are a politically well-connected company in China, you always win your lawsuits, provided you are not so silly as to sue an even-better-politically-well-connected company.

     

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  35.  
    identicon
    staff, Mar 16th, 2012 @ 7:56am

    another biased article

    It's all about strong property rights. Without them no one will risk their ass-ets.

    “Patent troll”

    Call it what you will...patent hoarder, patent troll, non-practicing entity, shell company, etc. It all means one thing: “we’re using your invention and we’re not going to pay or stop”. This is just dissembling by large infringers and their paid puppets to kill any inventor support system. It is purely about legalizing theft. The fact is, many of the large multinationals who defame inventors in this way themselves make no products in the US or create any American jobs and it is their continued blatant theft which makes it impossible for the true creators to do so.

    Prior to eBay v Mercexchange, small entities had a viable chance at commercializing their inventions. If the defendant was found guilty, an injunction was most always issued. Then the inventor small entity could enjoy the exclusive use of his invention in commercializing it. Unfortunately, injunctions are often no longer available to small entity inventors because of the Supreme Court decision so we have no fair chance to compete with much larger entities who are now free to use our inventions. Essentially, large infringers now have your gun and all the bullets. Worse yet, inability to commercialize means those same small entities will not be hiring new employees to roll out their products and services. And now some of those same parties who killed injunctions for small entities and thus blocked their chance at commercializing now complain that small entity inventors are not commercializing. They created the problem and now they want to blame small entities for it. What dissembling! If you don’t like this state of affairs (your unemployment is running out), tell your Congress member. Then maybe we can get some sense back in the patent system with injunctions fully enforceable on all infringers by all inventors, large and small.

    Those wishing to help fight big business giveaways should contact us as below and join the fight as we are building a network of inventors and other stakeholders to lobby Congress to restore property rights for all patent owners -large and small.

    For the truth about trolls, please see http://truereform.piausa.org/default.html#pt.

     

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  36.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 16th, 2012 @ 10:07am

    Re: Re: Re:

    I see that you have difficulty reading or understanding the comments that you reply to.

     

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

  37.  
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    toyotabedzrock (profile), Mar 16th, 2012 @ 2:41pm

    The Key

    "They took notes and created nonsensical documents that I still can’t make sense of."

     

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

  38.  
    identicon
    Jose_X, Mar 22nd, 2012 @ 2:32pm

    handcuffing great independent invetors

    We have the problematic patent law itself that stipulates that to pass the inventiveness bar an invention be merely "non-obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the art".

    Non-obvious : like a little harder than easy.

    Ordinary : as judged by people in the fat part of the bell curve... leading to many geniuses and smart folks and hard working average developers being pre-empted and hand-cuffed.

     

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


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