Earlier this week, Yahoo! filed suit against Facebook alleging that it infringed on 10 different Yahoo! patents
. Normal course of business, except for the timing and the companies involved. Facebook is involved in trying to go IPO, and a big-name public lawsuit could monkey-wrench the whole works. Yahoo! is floundering desperately trying to find someone to lead it and some business in which it can compete, or at least have enough going for it to be worth someone bigger buying.
The meat of the suit seems broad - Yahoo is hitting at Facebook on ad generation, customization, and aspects of social networking such as creating news feeds, messaging, and managing comments. I haven't read the patents in question, but I wanted to comment on how the suit seems to be stirring up the geek community by looking at some items that appeared in response to the suit that gave me the head-scratching WTF pause.
In the first, Mark Cuban wrote a modestly titled blog entry hoping that Yahoo! "crushes" Facebook. In past blog entries, Cuban has not been shy about stating his opinions about patents and the needs he sees for patent reforms. So what's he up to here? Well he thinks that if Yahoo wins a huge judgment against Facebook that will somehow cause people to sit up and take notice and somehow that will cause a change in the patent system.
Uh... yeah. I don't even know where to start with that one. Even if the public somehow figured out what was happening, which I wouldn't bet on, what would they care if Big Corporation A pays Big Corporation B some money? It's not like anyone's Facebook pages are going to go away because of this. Facebook will probably pay up and may change some of their features to get around patent clauses, but honestly Facebook changes your pages so often and so arbitrarily that nobody's going to notice a few more changes.
Meanwhile, Gizmodo is screaming that "Yahoo Is Out To Burn Down The Web". Uh, guys? Facebook isn't the Web, however much Facebook would like you to believe it is. And if Yahoo's patent is valid and enforceable against Facebook then yes they may well try to enforce it against other sites. Which would be a tragedy exactly... how?
The article's author, Mat Honan is grotesquely misinformed about how patent protection works. He claims that "Facebook is built on its own unique codebase" which is probably true and completely irrelevant to whether or not they're infringing the patent. Let me 'splain... no, is too complicated, let me sum up: whether or not you wrote your own code from scratch isn't at issue here. What's at issue is what that code does. Also, Honan wails that if this is upheld then "Yahoo [would own] personalization outright." Oh, puh-leeze. Patents protect inventions; anyone who thinks Yahoo patented every single possible invention related to personalization is... wait, named Mat Honan? What does it even mean to "own" personalization? Get a grip, Mat, use your inhaler, take a Valium.
And finally we have Andy Baio writing for WIRED about how Yahoo "weaponized" "his" patents. Oh, cry me a river. First of all, his patents aren't at issue here, as he admits. (Though he's probably not responsible for the attention-grabbing headline on his column.) More to the point, Baio is whining that Yahoo actually got patents while he was there and even though he hates patents he helped them get some and now they're actually (*GASP*) using patents in an offensive way, not just in the defensive manner he thinks he was promised.
Let me find you some tissues. The very first lecture I ever attended on patenting in a corporate environment (at Texas Instruments in 1989 if anyone cares) covered the notion of "sword" and "shield" patents and how it was only a distinction of convenience. If you didn't get such information, or weren't motivated to understand what you were doing when you helped Yahoo apply for patents, my sympathy for you is precisely zero. No one is required to sue anyone in order for a patent to be valid (unlike, say, a trademark) but that option is always there.
As I noted about a month ago there's some debate over exactly what the best patent enforcement method is, but there's little doubt that patents play an extremely important position in the fight for dominance in global markets. Why Baio thinks Yahoo would behave any differently than Apple (or dozens of other high-tech companies) is a mystery to me.
Yes, it sure would have been nice if Yahoo could have turned its innovations into wildly financially successful products so it didn't care about who was using its patented inventions. But it didn't, and it does, and these suits are just part of the death throes of the company. Perhaps one day all that will remain of Yahoo will be a few patents that have been upheld in court and that someone will pay money to acquire. So it goes. Between then and now it'd be nice to see less hysteria and more clear-headed analysis on the topic.