The cost of patent trolls

By Felix Salmon
July 25, 2011
This American Life's investigation into patent troll Nathan Myhrvold and his company Intellectual Ventures.

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I love This American Life’s investigation into patent troll Nathan Myhrvold and his company Intellectual Ventures. You should go read — or listen to — the whole thing, but in a nutshell, they explored what happened if they took Intellectual Ventures at its word.

IV pointed TAL to an inventor called Chris Crawford — a man with a patent which he sold to IV. Inventors! Getting paid! For inventing! Except when TAL tried to talk to Crawford, he wouldn’t answer their calls. And it turns out that IV had sold his patent to Oasis Research, a Texas company with a nameplate address and no employees, for some up-front consideration and a percentage of all litigation proceeds.

TAL goes into clear detail about the idiocies of the patent system — how even software engineers with patents don’t believe that software processes should be patentable; how patents are regularly awarded for ideas which have been around for years; how multiple patents are often awarded for much the same idea; how IV is essentially running an intellectual-property protection racket; and how big companies are amassing patent portfolios not so that they own the intellectual property behind their products, but rather so that they can threaten to sue any company which sues them.

The end result is a highly dysfunctional situation where virtually any startup is at risk of being shut down by a patent suit; and where nameplate companies with no business and no revenues, like Oasis Research, are the perfect vehicles to launch patent suits, since they’re not susceptible to countersuits. Essentially, if you’re small, you have to hope to fly below the radar; if you’re big, you have to pay billions of dollars on patents you have no particular interest in. Here’s how TAL describes the $4.5 billion that Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and others paid for Nortel’s patent portfolio:

That’s $4.5 billion on patents that these companies almost certainly don’t want for their technical secrets. That $4.5 billion won’t build anything new, won’t bring new products to the shelves, won’t open up new factories that can hire people who need jobs. That’s $4.5 billion dollars that adds to the price of every product these companies sell you. That’s $4.5 billion dollars buying arms for an ongoing patent war.

The big companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft — will probably survive. The likely casualties are the companies out there now that no one’s ever heard of that could one day take their place.

The US is in desperate need of patent overhaul. We need to make it easier and quicker to get good patents, and much harder or impossible to get bad patents. We need to abolish the abomination that is the business-method patent entirely. And most crucially we need to allow defendants in patent suits to argue that the patent is invalid because it was awarded in error, with lots of prior art at the time the patent was awarded. Right now, patents can be appealed — but not in the court where they’re being enforced, with the result that trolls with invalid patents can still get paid out to the tune of billions of dollars.

Chuck Schumer’s bill taking aim at business-method patents in the financial industry is a good start; if the sun continues to rise in the east after it passes, that might embolden legislators to start taking aim at business-method patents more generally.

But this is a Congress which is clearly incapable of doing the most obviously right things: given the choice, they’ll always and predictably pick demagoguery coupled with devastation over simple common sense every time. The incoherent and anachronistic patent system is, sadly, with us for the foreseeable future. And the cost of that will be huge, in terms of seven-figure lawyers’ fees, rents extracted by trolls, and, most importantly, lost innovation and entrepreneurialism.

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