Revealed in a Twitter filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission this morning, IBM is claiming that Twitter has infringed on at least three of its patents, including one entitled “Method for presenting advertising in an interactive service,” which was filed in 1993 but not published until 2006.
The filing states that IBM hasn’t sued Twitter, but that the former is “inviting [Twitter] to negotiate a business resolution of the allegations.” The advertising-related patent’s purview is broad and would seem to apply to any number of online companies, including Facebook and Google.
For example, a line in the patent’s abstract could describe how many companies are now approaching native ads: “In accordance with the method, the advertising is structured in a manner comparable to the service applications enabling the applications to be presented at a first portion of a display associated with the reception system and the advertising presented at a second portion.” Another line describes basic and ubiquitous ad targeting: “Yet further the method features steps for individualizing the advertising supplied to enhance potential user interest by providing advertising based on a characterization of the user as defined by the users interaction with the service, user demographics and geographical location.”
Facebook declined to comment on whether it’s paying IBM to license this patent. Google didn’t respond to a request for comment. Interestingly, Facebook bought about 750 patents from IBM in March 2012, when it was under siege by Yahoo for its claims of patent infringement. The incident had begun that month during the brief tenure of former CEO Scott Thompson, when Yahoo sued Facebook for infringing on 10 of its patents related to social networking and advertising. The suit was dropped in July when interim CEO Ross Levinsohn held the reins.
The companies announced they had entered into a “strategic partnership” to resolve their differences, but no money was paid out by Facebook. The lawsuit turned into a public-relations debacle for Yahoo, particularly within the entrepreneurial enclaves of Silicon Valley. Within the tech community, the narrative was one of an increasingly obsolete company trying to piggyback on the success of an innovative one.
It seems that IBM is hoping the narrative will be told differently this time. Twitter, meanwhile, has a firm stance on the patent arms race that’s played out between so many tech companies: it wants to use patents “only as a shield rather than as a weapon,” according to Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement. In the name of supporting innovation, the document states that control of any patents Twitter wins will be retained by the engineers and designers who developed the underlying technology. That means that Twitter can’t engage in any offensive litigation without those people’s consent.
However high-minded the sentiment, Twitter’s patent policy could make it more vulnerable to patent-infringement suits. It currently has nine issued U.S. patents, compared to the 774 Facebook had before it went public and the 6,478 patents IBM added to its portfolio in 2012 alone, according to Bloomberg.