Yahoo! Patent Thoughts


I joined Yahoo! in 2004, shortly after blowing off Google.

Apparently that stupid, stupid mistake surprising post got me noticed enough for Jeremy Zawodny to point out my name to Jerry Yang, then still a Chief Yahoo! and not the CEO, who asked me to come in for an interview. He hired me, and I ended up helping the corporate development team there with mobile strategy (not sure how much was really wanted or needed), giving demos to the C-level execs (e.g. teaching Terry Semel how to send a text message), and working on a skunkworks project paid out of the infamous 'Jerry's Fund', nominally reporting to Geoff Ralston. Eventually when Marco Boerries's company was acquired and he became head of Connected Life (i.e. the non-PC stuff like TV, widgets and mobile), I transitioned to work for him doing strategy and eventually helped hire the VP of Mobile Chris Lindholm and worked for him.

Ok, that was lots of name-dropping, but the point is to give a solid timeframe of when I was there and the people I was dealing with. During my time at Y! I was supposed to be an 'innovator', and bounced around working for a bunch of execs basically trying to suggest new mobile ideas Yahoo! should pursue and providing feedback on general mobile strategy. I don't think most of the people I worked with outside of those execs had any idea what I did at Yahoo! (This was of course before my wife left me, and I stopped showing up for work regularly. Then pretty much no one had any idea what I did there.)

So with that as context, I wanted to point out that there was *never* a time at Yahoo! when patents were considered 'for defensive purposes only'. If you worked there and you think otherwise, either you aren't remembering very well, or you're simply deluding yourself. I love Andy Baio, I've read for years, but his article yesterday was complete rose-colored crap. Now, don't get me wrong, Yahoo! has done it's very best over the past decade to fuck up, and suing Facebook doesn't break that pattern. But that doesn't change the fact that patents were very important to Yahoo! from the moment I joined, and even after I left (more about that in a second), in a very aggressive way.

History lesson: Yahoo! bought Overture in 2003 specifically *because* of their patent litigation against Google. Shortly after the acquisition, in the summer of 2004, Google settled with Yahoo!, giving them 2.7MM shares of common stock in exchange for a perpetual license. It was a massive windfall for Yahoo! and it was an event celebrated by every employee at the company from the execs on down. I heard no reservations about this from anyone that I ever worked with, nor any caveats about doing it again if the opportunity arose.

There was an emphasis for everyone, company-wide, to submit patent applications or patent ideas with the specific notion that Yahoo! was going to use them to prove that it was an innovator. Remember at the time Google was dazzling the world with their growth, and Y! was trying to show it was an innovative company as well. But in addition to just being innovative, there was a sense of wariness about startups coming on fast, and the need to be able defend against them. This is quite obvious in the way they went on a massive talent and startup acquisition spree back then, and then immediately had those new employees submit patents related to their work. There was no sense of, 'oh, in case we get sued, we'll be able to fight back' sort of defense about the patents, it was always, 'oh, in case we lose out to another startup like we did with Google, and we can't acquire them, we'll be able to take them down with our portfolio of patents.'

A few years after I left Yahoo!, I got contacted by their lawyers about two patent applications that have my name on them. They want me to re-affirm them, or update my contact info or something - I'm honestly not sure what. This is an interesting story in and of itself. The patents pending are Mobile Social Networking , and Mobile Monetization. I know, those are insanely generically worded patents. Here's the thing, I don't remember contributing anything to them. This isn't a completely ridiculous notion, as I have an incredibly bad memory. The patent stuff I remember submitting was akin to the conversational user interface I wrote about a few weeks ago. I *might* have something to do with the mobile monetization stuff, as I banged the table quite a bit about making sure services made money back when I was there, but the mobile social networking patent!? Me? Social networking? Read this blog for about two minutes and you'd know I don't get social networking and never have.

Since it was really only resume fodder for me, I wasn't going to worry much about it. Until the last time the lawyers contacted me a couple months ago - they asked if I knew the whereabouts of one of the other people listed on the money patent as they couldn't find them. I didn't, so I sent a message to an old Y! contact on Facebook (ironically enough) and got quite an interesting response about that patent: My name was never meant to be on it, and that the people submitting the patent were made to put my name on it and weren't happy about it. Apparently, this had happened *after* I left. Wow. No wonder I couldn't remember anything about it, as I had nothing to do with it. I know I have a penchant for pissing people off, but usually I know that I'm doing it, or I'm at least aware of it happening. This was completely crazy to me. So when the lawyer called me again to see if I could fill out the paperwork she sent me, I told her that, honestly, I didn't want anything to do with the patent now as apparently my name isn't supposed to be on it, and the rest of the inventors were pissed off at that fact that it was, and most importantly, I don't have the slightest recollection of the patent at all. So that's the last I've heard of it, but looking online, my name is still attached to it. We'll see what happens.

Anyways, this must have happened to others as well, maybe even Andy? It doesn't take a genius to add up Yahoo!'s executive troubles and tumbling market share, with frequent calls from lawyers making sure that all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed on years-old patent applications to know what's going on. I'm sorry about whatever guilt ex-Yahoo's might be feeling about this sort of thing, but there's no way that anyone could have been confused about Yahoo!'s intentions when it comes to wielding their patent portfolio, then or now. Yes, it sucks, but hey, we chose to join the wrong bandwagon back when. Nothing we can do about that now except suck it up and let our resumes take the hit.

That said, the hypocritical angst I've seen from rest of the industry is completely inane. I mean, I understand that it's easy to attack Yahoo! - they're not the young fresh startup that's going to go public in the next few months and make hundreds of new millionaires and billionaires - so that makes sense. There's a variety of entrenched interests in making sure they seem like the bad guy, and I'm definitely not going to defend them. BUT the feigned shock and over-the-top moral outrage is just fucking unbelievable. You may not *like* the fact that Yahoo! sued Facebook, but don't act surprised and affronted. Doing so just shows willful ignorance, obvious bias or both. I'm not going to go down the 'software patents are a reality' or 'everyone's a bad guy in their own way' path, but come on, be realistic. Unless you're some 22 year old kid who joined Facebook last week and can't understand how some old-ass company like Yahoo! which started when you were still in pre-school is suing your beloved startup, you really should know better than to express such violent shock that Y! is doing the obvious.

Harp all you want, but outrage? Please get real.


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