Attack of the patent trolls
Posted Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

This week’s story on This American Life, When Patents Attack, is a good introduction to how the patent system is being used and abused, especially in the software industry. I listened to it today and got new insights into a complex problem. It will be aired on WYPR (88.1) at 4:00pm Sunday and available for for online listening or downloading after 7:00pm on Sunday. The text of the show is available now on NPR’s Planet Money blog. Here’s how it starts…

Nathan Myhrvold is a genius and a polymath. He made hundreds of millions of dollars as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, he’s discovered dinosaur fossils, and he recently co-authored a six-volume cookbook that “reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food.”

Myhrvold has more than 100 patents to his name, and he’s cast himself as a man determined to give his fellow inventors their due. In 2000, he founded a company called Intellectual Ventures, which he calls “a company that invests in invention.”

But Myhrvold’s company has a different image among many Silicon Valley insiders.

The influential blog Techdirt regularly refers to Intellectual Ventures as a patent troll. IPWatchdog, an intellectual property site, called IV “patent troll public enemy #1.” These blogs write about how Intellectual Ventures has amassed one of the largest patent portfolios in existence and is going around to technology companies demanding money to license these patents.

Patents are a big deal in the software industry right now. Lawsuits are proliferating. Big technology companies are spending billions of dollars to buy up huge patent portfolios in order to defend themselves. Computer programmers say patents are hindering innovation.

But people at companies that have been approached by Intellectual Ventures don’t want to talk publicly.

“There is a lot of fear about Intellectual Ventures,” says Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Twitter, among other companies. “You don’t want to make yourself a target.”

Sacca wouldn’t say if Intellectual Ventures had been in contact with any of the companies he’s invested in.

“I tried to put you in touch with other people in this community to talk to you about this and they almost uniformly said they couldn’t talk to you,” Sacca told us. “They were afraid to.” IV has the power to “literally obliterate startups,” Sacca says.

It’s well worth reading or listening to to understand how the current patent system in the US is effecting not only business, but also the disciplines that produce new ideas and inventions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


Posted in: Computer EngineeringComputer ScienceElectrical EngineeringEngineering ManagementfyiSystems Engineering