First off, i Am Not A Lawyer, nor do i play one on TV. i am about as qualified to speak with any form of intelligence on the subject of the legal concept of Intellectual Property as most lawyers are unable to grasp the concepts of software design. In short: 't ain't my thing.
Setting that aside, however, Twitter's recent announcement of the Innovators Patent Agreement kinda leaves me feeling odd. In many respects, they're "Doing It Right®". They're establishing a patent policy where folks creating the patents own the ideas, the patents can only be used defensively, the policy remains in effect even if the patents are later sold or transferred, and they're even hashing all this out on github.com. Considering the crapola state of software patents and how they're stifling innovation, it's a good step toward solving this sort of crap.
But, then there's part of my brain that speaks up. You see, you can't patent things that are in the public domain. In fact, you can modify, enhance or transform a concept, but the patent only applies to that modification (the same is true if you take an existing patent). Even then, your idea has to be a substantial improvement over the previous idea, and not just painting it blue or something.
So, why patent it at all?
Patents exist for one reason. To prevent you from doing something. If i can patent something, i can do whatever for the period of the patent, but if you want to do it, i have to let you. Most times, i'll let you if you pay me enough, but that's not always the case. Sometimes i won't grant you the right regardless of offers of compensation just out of spite. Right now, companies are being bought and sold just for their portfolio, which is immediately used against companies that are doing the same thing. It's an arms race.
If twitter, or an engineer were to release an idea into the public domain, it becomes prior art. That's why so many mobile devices have multi-touch (since the idea came out in 1985). Apple owns some additional aspects of how that interface is used within their UI, but that's about it.
i'm honestly curious about this. Part of this strikes me as painting flowers on warheads. These are still patents. They still exist to prevent you from doing things. If i wanted to create a library that uses concepts contained in these patents, that library is still subject to the holder enforcing those patents and either requesting my library to be removed or filing damages. That's what patents do. Yeah, i could make a very nice looking oven out of that crate of bullets, but i wouldn't want to make a pizza in it. i'd still want to use ideas and methods that are in the public domain so i could avoid those issues. It's why Ogg, bzip and png exist.
If you want this stuff to be freely used, why not make it free?
As i noted to @municode, i'm not against the #IPA, i'm just skeptical. Patents have trained me to look deeper than just what someone says.
Update2: Andy Baio writes his opinion of the #IPA. Also an illuminating read.