A legal expert is urging start-ups to implement policies regarding intellectual property created by their staff, after Twitter announced the introduction of an Innovator’s Patent Agreement (IPA).
Adam Messinger, Twitter’s vice president of engineering, announced in a company blog post that the company will publish a draft of its IPA, to be implemented later this year.
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“Like many companies, we apply for patents. However, we also think a lot about how those patents may be used,” Messinger wrote.
“We sometimes worry that they may be used to impede the innovation of others… The IPA is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers.”
“It is a commitment from Twitter to our employees that patents can only be used for defensive purposes.”
“We will not use the patents from employees’ inventions in offensive litigation without their permission.”
“What’s more, this control flows with the patents, so if we sold them to others, they could only use them as the inventor intended.”
According to Messinger, the move is a “significant departure” from the current state of affairs in the industry.
“Typically, engineers and designers sign an agreement with their company that irrevocably gives that company any patents filed related to the employee’s work.”
“The company then has control over the patents and can use them however they want, which may include selling them to others who can also use them however they want.”
“With the IPA, employees can be assured that their patents will be used only as a shield rather than as a weapon.”
James Omond, head of commercial law firm Omond & Co., says it can be difficult to determine who owns inventions and IP developments when they’re developed within a relationship.
“It might be an employment relationship, a consulting or contracting relationship, or one of the owners of the business,” Omond says.
“With start-ups… the founders are so often not in a clear employment relationship [with their staff] and that can lead to all sorts of problems over who owns the IP.”
“Employees may have developed it in their own time but may have used the resources of the business while doing it. Those sorts of issues can cloud the issue as to who is the owner.”
According to Omond, there needs to be clear, written documentation that states who owns IP developments, along with any situations the agreement won’t apply to.
“To protect themselves, [start-ups also] need to be very careful they don’t disclose it if it’s patentable technology – you can’t disclose it before you’ve filed your patent,” he says.
“A lot of people fall into the trap of feeling the need to shop it around or test the market with a few key customers or suppliers. That can easily stop your attempt to protect it.”