Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Twitter granted patent on Twitter-like services (uspto.gov)
119 points by RobAley on March 20, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments

I realize that we all have strong opinions about the topic of software patents, but in an effort to radiate more light and less heat, I think it is important to understand the official Twitter position on this topic as well.

Introducing the Innovator's Patent Agreement

Note: Emphasis is mine.

"We will implement the IPA later this year, and it will apply to all patents issued to our engineers, both past and present." [1]

"The Innovators Patent Agreement (IPA) is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers. It is a commitment from a company to its employees that patents can only be used for defensive purposes. The company will not use the patents in offensive litigation without the permission of the inventors. This control flows with the patents, so if the company sells the patents to others, the assignee can only use the patents as the inventor intended." [2]

[1] http://engineering.twitter.com/2012/04/introducing-innovator...

[2] https://github.com/twitter/innovators-patent-agreement

> The company will not use the patents in offensive litigation without the permission of the inventors.

Now look at the names on the patent in question. Do you think they'll oppose offensive litigation specific to this patent?

It's important to note that the names on the patent are Jack Dorsey and Chris "Biz" Stone, not the ordinary staff/engineers at Twitter, at which the IPA was aimed.

Also note that nothing in the IPA prevents the use of patents offensively if the named inventors agree.

In effect, the IPA isn't relevant to this patent, as the named inventors haven't (and probably won't) make a commitment not to use it to protect their business/personal interests.

And how do they plan on enforcing that?

I wonder if it could be used as a defense for the defendant in the case of Twitter using their patents on the offensive.

i.e. Twitter sues Company X for using a follower system. Company X asks judge to throw out the complaint based on the Innovators Patent Agreement that the Twitter CEO and board signed.

The same way lawyers already enforce contracts? If I had to guess. That and having publicly made the statement, they would see a mass exodus of users if they broke their own promise. (Think GoDaddy)

Contracts require (amongst other things) counter-parties who also sign and the exchange of goods or services between the parties ("consideration"), neither of which unilaterally signing some random document has.

In law, it is very difficult for individuals to bind their future selves. You generally need another party to create obligations that they can enforce against you. So for example counter-parties to a contract, trustees and beneficiaries, employers and employees, fiduciary agents and their clients etc etc. All of these require distinct legal persons to work, if you you combine them into a single legal person the obligations evaporate.

Because when it's you vs you the law pretty sensibly throws its hands in the air and says "well what the hell do you want the courts to do? Hop in a time machine and drag past you into court?"


Because Twitter is a company whose word is trustable?

I haven't read the patent. But it seems to me that prior art would be CompuServe's CB Simulator -- from the early 1980s. That's what I thought of when I first encountered Twitter. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cb_simulator

>> TennesseeBunny was dialed in with a laptop and a 2400 baud modem and broadcast the event play by play

And there we have the invention of live-tweeting an event!

Does 'prior art' even matter? Seems like a subjective distinction that's regularly quashed by monied interests.


Which has nothing to do with this Twitter patent.

This is disgusting and immoral. It also seems to have been filed before they made their patent promise thing public. Assholes.

as noted above:

"We will implement the IPA later this year, and it will apply to all patents issued to our engineers, both past and present." [1]

emphasis on past

[1] http://engineering.twitter.com/2012/04/introducing-innovator...

The independent claims all explicitly codify the follower/following mechanic. So if you want to show prior art, you'll have to find something where a user was subscribing to receive broadcast messages from other explicitly-defined users, as opposed to subscribing to a channel, group, mailing list, etc.

The heaps of similar methods that don't include follower/following is a good reminder of how easy it is to avoid infringing on this patent: just skip the follower/following mechanic.

afaik, LiveJournal (i.e., Brad Fitzpatrick) invented the follower/following pattern, except they just called it "friends of" & "friends".

LJ was the direct inspiration for Twitter, at least according to this interview: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2009/02/twitter-c...

Friends is bi-directional, no?

Or did LiveJournal have a way for me to be your friend without you being mine?

> Friends is bi-directional, no?

Not in Livejournal lingo - remember, this is pre-Facebook.

Livejournal's 'friend' and 'friend of' worked exactly the same as Twitter's 'following' and 'followers'.

That would seem to be prior art for that element then, depending on the dates. Though now we'd have to dig into the rest of the elements.

And apparently I'm getting downvoted for not being familiar with LiveJournal, so that's something someone else would have to do.

Isn't h2g2 significantly older than Livejournal? They've had non-bi-directional friendships for years (and you're automatically subscribed to your friends' journals (blogs)).

Do the users have to be human? Because I'd have thought most Observer pattern implementations fit the concept of "follower" / "followee".

That's a solid question. I don't know.

I would be tempted to say that automated agents would obviously be prior art, but inventions that just automate long-standing physical workflows in a straightforward way (do it on a computer) have been found patentable more than a few times.

So I wouldn't be optimistic that the reverse isn't also true.

can you patent a design pattern ?

I'm not a patent lawyer or anything, but I don't think that is the important part. It looks to me like what they're really looking to patent is cross-media communication — Bob submits a tweet via the website, Chris gets it texted to his phone and Danielle sees it pop up via Growl notification from her client app.

LiveJournal doesn't route messages. It performs database queries which renders to HTML. As a result twitter will broadcast what you say to all of your followers, immediately, to their cell phones. This isn't something LiveJournal's architecture supported.

Is this because someone forgot to patent the cc feature of email? We've been doing similar point to multi-medium translation of messages for decades. Email to email+text pager for doctors in hospitals. Surely there's a strong prior art case that invalidates this, but this is also obvious enough that it really shouldn't get through in the first place.

I am just too thick to understand IP law.

Or BBS, or IRC status bloomberg terminals etc etc etc.

Whole thing sucks. I'm not going to read the patent.

If the guy that invented sms patented 140 char messages there would be no twitter. Or irc messages, or smoke signals, or X where one people sends a text message to others. Patents are a bureocratic perversion that do not acomplish any progress to humanity, they just perpetuate the bureocratic system itself.

Many of these humans are caught within a system which incentivizes personal interests over those of society. Those in higher power are aware of this, but too cowardly to do anything about it, sadly, and the lower amongst us are forced to at least protect themselves from a broken system. But the thing is, the more they protect themselves, the more this corrupt system becomes reinforced and innovation becomes even more endangered. We need to wake up and say enough is enough already. Do we really want this paralyzing system to dictate us and future humanity?

There is always a choice.

What good is a choice when they've got a gun to your head? Do most of us have to die before we finally get it?

A gun...over patents? I think you may be diluting the topic for some reason.

I'm not diluting nothing. Patents shoot down competition.

You have got to be kidding me. This just shows how broken the US patent system is for software.

The patents involves routing messages with emphasis on followers. Everything previous I'm aware of has been multicast based or address based, like email or mailing lists. Most internet and application-layer protocols are destination based. Where is a protocol that says "Route this message based on who is interested in the source."? All I find is "send this message there, based on X, or, send that message here, based on Y"; both destination based. Would be interesting to know or hear of past protocols which are more similar to twitter's patent.

Everything previous I'm aware of has been multicast based or address based, like email or mailing lists.

As others remarked, IRC is follower-based. You follow a bunch of channels by sending subscription message (JOIN #channel-name) to central authority (IRC server). The server keeps track of who follows which channel, and brokers any PRIVMSG #channel message messages to the followers, until the person does PART #channel-name or disconnects. Aside of that, a direct person-to-person mechanism exists just as well, also via the PRIVMSG command.

The USER nickname command provides, among other, list of (public) channels the named person follows, which some IRC clients use to allow user to follow the same channels.

Yes, there is a difference between an IRC channel and a singular persona, but it is not as clear-cut as it may seem on its face. On one hand, some channels are muted, and only admins, or just a single admin, can post. On the other, Twitter handles often stand for multiple persons, speaking for one organization, team etc.

* * *

As an IRC user, I am ashamed and appalled of how low our industry has fallen -- somebody applies for a patent for what (after cursory read seems to me) a copy of well-known and long-established functionality.

IRC has no such long-established functionality. You can MSG a #channel or a user and that's it. User's can't follow each other and there are no lists. These followers and lists are how twitter routes messages, not a channel.

Such a simple difference makes all the difference. In this case, enough to file a patent.

If they didn't file a patent someone else would have.

> If they didn't file a patent someone else would have.

And Twitter would have been in a position to object it to death.

Seems like LiveJournal did the "followers" thing first.

What does this mean for the likes of Identica, StatusNet, OStatus, etc?

This is almost definitely a direct result of the recent legislation that changed patents from a 'first to invent' to 'first to file' system. Basically, Twitter had to file a patent on twitter-like services, or someone else could come along, patent it, and force Twitter to 'license' the tech.

The law went into effect on Monday.

It has nothing to do with the recent legislation. The patent was filed in 2008, so is under the old "first to invent" regime.

That is not at all how "first to file" works. You still need to be presenting a novel invention that doesn't have prior art.

First to file drastically reduces the number and complexity of patent disputes and it improves the stability of a patent once acquired.

And there's always been a de facto paperwork requirement under first to invent anyhow, it's just that you had to keep nauseatingly detailed "inventor's logs" just in case somebody sued you. And even then you could be bankrupted in court by someone running a frivolous interference case.

First to file is a net win. That's why everyone else on Earth has been using it.


Twitter's patent application was filed in 2008, so no, this is not related to the recent legislative change.

Ridiculous, surely sth like Jabber could be shown as prior art ?

Does this mean I have to take down all of my Ruby on Tails Twitter-like tutorial apps?

If you don't care about your websites(eg. Hobby projects, projects that aren't doing well) or care a lot(eg. Your site is the next facebook) approach a Patent lawyer and have your site reviewed. If he/she finds something amiss, approach twitter and ask them if they are ok with your website. If your site infringes the patent and you don't care about your site and you do this, you end up helping people understand where twitter stands on the issue of patent abuse and trolling. If you care a lot about your website and you do this, you are safeguarding your interests.

However, if you care just enough for your website(eg. Your site makes enough money to pay for itself and then some), I would advice against approaching twitter. Chances are twitters lawyers will ask you to shut your project, if you approach. And if you don't, chances are your project might be small enough and remain unharmed(security by obscurity?) if twitter goes a-trolling.

Yes. you bastard.

How did Twitter get the patent on BizTalk? The description sounds much more like BizTalk than Twitter to me.

I'm the in the middle of patenting an actual protocol (unrelated). In case you're wondering, yes: patentese is always vague and difficult to follow. I wrote a few thousand words to describe my protocol to the level you'd find in an RFC, and it blows out to tens of thousands of words of dense verbiage and a bunch of diagrams with hundreds of reference numbers.

There is prior art for this. I've seen forums that permit turning on notices for all posts by specific users, which in itself looks to satisfy every claim, since they also include a "what's new" feed which is basically just a dumping of posts anywhere on the site into 1 place. They behave like a miniature twitter in that regard.

IRC clients also notify the user when messages targeting them (via your handle, similar to @handle) are received, and I've seen scripts that pull comments from specific users from any open channels, and the opposite (namely blocking users) has been present in countless applications, which indicates the concept of paying special attention to a specific user isn't a new one.

On top of this, I don't feel like there's anything that's innovative at all in this patent. Since when did the innovation step stop being a requirement?

I read through the first claim, here's a summary I built as I went along (IANAL so I'm probably wrong).

Their first claim is the following:

A way to communicate between computers (1:many) where users can designate by computer to follow someone else.

Where users are identified by accounts where following is an account config.

Where users can be notified of messages that they are not explicitly told about (but follow).

Where another user is marked as the sender (we have their followers, so that is implicitly marked too).

Where the first user is one of the followers.

Where the first user has devices ("endpoints") that they'd like to recieve messages from (phone/etc), this patent applies to sending each message to each of the endpoints in their appropriate format.

Points 2-8 are about:

- Different ways to send the message.

- per-following subscription preferences.

- Message preferences set up in weird ways. (3. I'm not too sure on this)

- Broadcasting through an aggregator that sends data through batched messages.

- Translating messages from/to UTF-8/etc.

- Delivering messages at specific times.

- Sending URLs to messages

At a glance, claim 9 is about storing the data for a message.

Claims 10-15 are about:

- Different ways to trigger the message that this data can represent.

- Per-following subscription preferences (I'm starting to think this is Twitter group subscriptions)

- Per-following subscription preferences including time periods.

- Messages that have no explicit recipient.

- Aggregated message delivery.

- Sending URLs to messages as the message

At a glance, claim 16 is about building the system that does this.

Claims 17-22 are pretty much the same as 10-15

EDIT: Wow, I didn't realize HN uses a variant of Markdown. (Good, good)

Relevant prior art, publicly disclosed on or before February 2001, which quite explicitly includes the "follower/following" mechanic:

(The blog article was written in relation to a different patent, but the prior art is most directly related to a Twitter-like service.)



At least they have... what? A shill-ish, apologetic article on Wired that doesn't offer anything except "we pinky promise not to troll"? There is still absolutely nothing stopping them from using this however they please.

If one of their employees invented it, then they can stop the legal proceedings.

Still, this patent can probably easily be invalidated with prior art.

They published that AFTER filing said patent, so I don't expect they offered it retroactively to the people on this filing.

And people wonder why innovation is being stifled. If you create something great that works, another bigger company already has a patent on it.

Don't hate the playa, hate the game.

They are using other people's money -- given the current system, they had a fiduciary responsibility to do this, unfortunately.

Maybe the lesson is to not take other people's money, but investment really does allow grand things happen that would not happen otherwise.

Patent system is fucked and fucked corrupts absolutely. At least, that's my take away.

It doesn't have an issue date, so I presume it's not granted and it's too early to lament how broken USPTO is.

The claims require service to have concept of explicit following of other users and receiving messages not explicitly addressed to them, so it's not like CC: in e-mail or Jabber chats.

Other press are stating the patent was issued yesterday, if this is correct perhaps the uspto website isn't updated daily.

Another one "non-evil" empire...

Who's to say this isn't just for meant defense? I imagine Twitter is a huge target for trolls given their deep pockets. Calm down, everyone.

So, this has been granted? Claim 1 looks incredibly broad to me.

There are 22 claims.

Would something have to meet all 22 claims to be infringing?

No, just all the elements of any one of the claims.

IMNAL, but, AFAIK, you can infringe individual claims. The reason patents are written this way is generally to pack together all related things, claims, into a single patent rather than file several, 22 in this case, patents.

I will now patent web pages.... follow by making a bookmark.

American companies had patented many famous varieties of rice[1] and other corp. Not to mention many medicinal plants that is being used in India not for centuries but millennia. USPO granted them all that. Luckily Indian Govt showed some ball at that time(which is remarkably rare), and they directly told the patent holders to stuff it up their ae.

Matter was settled.

Can't sth like that happen in computers and Internet?

(BTW, it seems either USPO is very corrupt or very negligent. Or maybe they don't give a damn!).


I doubt very much that the USPTO is getting kickbacks to pass patents through. As I understand it, "number of patents granted" is the metric they use for success, which puts a lot of pressure on the patent examiners at the bottom rung to do very basic research before pushing things through.

Basically, there is no incentive for them to do a diligent job, so they don't.

Invalid, trivial prior art everywhere.

IPv4 multicast with IGMP and any system built on it are the most obvious, not to mention any IM software where people can set their status and have it broadcasted to all contacts.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact