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Yahoo! and Patent Trolling

Yahoo! headquarters

Yahoo! headquarters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright remains a hot-button issue in information technology, internet theory, and pop culture, and it will for some time to come.

The overreaching anti-infringement acts SOPA and PIPA were defeated in large part by the collective outcry of private citizens, but the impulses that were driving the legislation remain as strong and far-reaching as ever, and they will give rise to more such efforts.

This isn’t just a conflict between law enforcement and a system that enables theft.  If the associated copyright issues were limited to straightforward theft of intellectual property like films and songs, there would be relatively little controversy. Then the entire subject would indeed be just a question of where to draw the line on enforcement so as to do no harm to the structure and freedom of the internet.

Hard to Own

But as it is, the internet is threatened not just by enforcement techniques but by the excessive reach of the laws themselves. A great deal of the intellectual property that is subject to modern patent law is computer software, which is rather more difficult to claim ownership of than material invention or isolated ideas. Trying to exert strict control over a series of lines of code risks stifling innovation by making it a crime to produce or profit from any software that resembles existing programs or applications.

Yahoo! recently broke new ground in this area of patent conflicts by threatening to sue Facebook over various patents that it claims the social networking site is infringing upon and must license from the veteran internet company.

These include website personalization, social networking and messaging, and newsfeed privacy controls. It’s rather difficult to understand how any one company can be said to own general features that are written into the content of sites across the internet, especially so long after those features clearly ceased to be capable of generating profit on their own.

Imagine it With Real Things…

It’s kind of like putting out a new line of cars and saying, this latest Mustang that Ford is currently using is the only one that can be used. All earlier lines and all CJ Pony Parts classic Mustang parts are now illegal.

But more than that, since companies don’t have to actually be producing anything to hold patents, Ford in this hypothetical wouldn’t even have to have a current Mustang. They could just say that they own the concept of the Mustang, and that every time someone resells one he has to give Ford a cut of the money, and every time he wants to drive one he has to pay Ford for a license to use their brand of car for its intended purpose.

Meanwhile, anyone who produces and sells Mustang parts can be sued because the items that they produce were modeled on preexisting, Ford-produced Mustang parts and are similar in form and function to the original.  It doesn’t matter that the vendor’s parts are specifically designed to be distinct from the original and to provide unique customizations; it’s intended to be used in the same way as the original – in this case, attached to the body of a Mustang – so it belongs to Ford by default.

While we’re at it, we may as well say that it’s also illegal to manufacture or sell a Camaro, because that’s a car, too. If this exclusive-ownership-of-ideas logic applied to patent law in the days of the original development of automobiles, there would only be one car company and it would probably manufacture hand-crank vehicles. Ideas would have been too strictly regulated to promote any innovation, and besides it wouldn’t be needed for profit.  Owning the original idea would be enough to lock a company into lifelong benefit from it.

Money for Nothing

That is the situation now. Some have described Yahoo!, by virtue of this move against Facebook, as a patent troll, a company that uses ownership of patents as a means of making money, even without producing anything of its own.

With this coming on the heels of Facebook’s IPO, some expect Yahoo! to seek a share of their stock as remuneration for the claimed infringement. Whatever form the payment takes, Yahoo! will make a substantial sum if it wins a settlement. And because of the function of current law, the company literally didn’t have to do anything for ten years in order to earn that sum.

After getting more info on patent trolls, you’d probably like to learn more about what could happen if the more strict interpretations become law, and how CJ Pony Parts Mustang parts could be a thing of the past if applied outside of cyberspace. Guest post written by Michelle.