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Businesses Patents The Almighty Buck

When Patents Attack — the NPR Version 87

Posted by timothy
from the official-office-suite-of-rent-seeking dept.
fermion writes "This American Life is running a story this week on Intellectual Ventures, a firm some consider the leader of the patent trolls. The story delves into the origins of the term patent troll and the rise of the patent troll industry. Much time is spent presenting Intellectual Ventures both as a patent troll firm and a legitimate business that allows helpless inventors to monetize patents. It is stipulated that Intellectual Ventures does not in fact sue anyone. It is also alleged that Intellectual Ventures creates many shell companies, presumably to hide such activity. Intellectual Ventures is compared to a Mafia protection racket that may never actually burn down a business that does not pay the dues, but does encourage such burning to occur."
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When Patents Attack — the NPR Version

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  • in all their "Mafia protection racket" analogies, they didn't use the phrase "You gotta really nice lookin' business here", which nearly always precedes "It'd be a shame if something happened to it".

    Nice piece, though, over all.

  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday July 23, 2011 @02:45PM (#36858212) Homepage
    But it would be nice to, at least in theory, RTFA. Is it just me or do I have to wait until Sunday at 7:00 PM (timezone unknown) to download the MP3 and LTFA.

    Or should I just whine about how bad patent trolls are without benefit of absorbing any new material? It's not like we haven't been down this road before.
    • Indeed. I was ready to listen to it and get into a nice comments discussion but lo and behold it will be available tomorrow unless you want to buy a copy on Amazon or iTunes. The internet has become such a wonderful source of information, freely flowing at the same pace as a telegram... unless of course you want to shop at the Apple Store. Then it's pretty much instantaneous... AND SO WHAT ABOUT ALL OF THAT PATENTED/PROPRIETARY BUSINESS are those goofballs at NPR going to gripe about? I guess I will f
    • by leonbev (111395)

      The show should be live-streaming on most of the West coast NPR stations in about 30 minutes, so you'll get your chance to LTFA soon.

      I heard the second half on the radio just a short while ago (and it was awesome), and I'm looking forward to listen the the half that I missed soon.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      http://podcast.thisamericanlife.org/podcast/441.mp3

  • This American Life gives me hives.

  • by grahamsaa (1287732) on Saturday July 23, 2011 @02:47PM (#36858226)
    While much of the slashdot community is aware of the insanity the way software patents work, this show does a pretty good job of explaining the process for the uninitiated. I tried to explain the problems associated with software patents to my girlfriend last week and she could barely believe how screwed software patents are. Thanks to NPR, I can send her to a more clear and thorough explanation than I was able to give.

    Hopefully this helps to convince non-technical Americans that patents should rarely, if ever be awarded for software.
    • by pfleming (683342)
      They spent an hour minus station break time to do it too. I had a lengthy discussion with some friends about copyright and patents and neither of them even knew it started in the Constitution. Most ordinary people don't know and don't care how much this costs them.
    • by Sabriel (134364)

      Explaining patent insanity is easy. What's hard is getting those in charge to fix it.

      Imagine a primitive world without cookies. Two people from different towns, John and Barry, independently invent cookies at the same time. Each starts a cookie-making business, but John pays the government for a patent.

      When they meet, John tells Barry that he has to either pay John a percentage or stop making cookies. Barry refuses, since John didn't have anything to do with Barry inventing cookies, but the government force

      • by hoggoth (414195)

        Imagine two people from different towns, John and Barry. John invents cookies and starts making cookies. Barry has a bakery and decided John's invention will add to his profit, so Barry starts making cookies too. Since Barry has a bakery with better equipment and staff, Barry soon puts John out of business.

        Later that week Zeke is sitting in Barry's bakery eating a cookie and has a revolutionary idea for a new invention. Just then John passes by dressed in rags begging for food and Zeke decides it's not wort

        • by Sabriel (134364)

          Since people today can start bakeries and make cookies yet not go out of business, even though other people already have bigger bakeries and make more cookies, your counter-example is hardly ironclad.

          And the counter-counter-example is John invents cookies, does patent them, and starts up a bakery. Barry has a big bakery franchise and a war chest of bakery-related patents, so buries John in lawyers. Broken by court costs, John agrees to lease Barry the patent for a pittance. Later that week Zeke has a revolu

  • and loved it. Everyone should listen to this. They tried to find a usefull (protected an inventor who wouldn't have been protected otherwise) patent issued from the last few years, and couldn't find one.
    • by robot256 (1635039) on Saturday July 23, 2011 @02:59PM (#36858296)
      Yeah, the guy from Intellectual Ventures said there were two cases, TWO CASES out of their 35,000 patents, that had actually been licensed to manufacturers. And he couldn't even remember what industry they were involved in, much less which patents. When their entire spiel is that they "take languishing ideas and put them to good use", that is a pretty piss poor record.
      • by MooUK (905450)

        "Good use", as in for the good of their bank accounts. What else did you expect?

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        By good use they mean shakedown someone actually producing a product. You did not think they actually wanted to get things made did you?

      • Hopefully now we'll get to see some real patent reform; honestly, I'm not sure why this hasn't come up already. The popular political topic right now is 'Obamacare' and how it 'creates uncertainty' and that is a horrible thing for business; understandable in a way, as they set aside money for the worst-case scenario whenever possible.

        So, assuming along those same lines, I wonder what their patent costs are? I know I've heard before that tech companies set aside a 'patent licensing fund' when they can to dea

        • by robot256 (1635039)

          Yeah, we'll get patent reform all right...for the trolls, by the trolls. The America Invents act will make it easier than ever for a patent troll to actually steal an idea before it's patented, get the patent, and then win in court when they sue the original inventor.

          Unfortunately, that is why we're all so depressed about patents (and many other things as well). It's because the status quo is one thing, but if Congress goes near it they can only make it worse.

        • by pfleming (683342)
          Patent reform [google.com]
  • Interesting tidbits (Score:5, Informative)

    by robot256 (1635039) on Saturday July 23, 2011 @02:56PM (#36858276)

    I listened to the whole thing live streaming from my NPR station. I was interested to hear that almost everything considered "common knowledge" here on Slashdot held up under their scrutiny. They visited a company that makes software to find duplicate patents, and they said that about 30% of patents granted are duplicates of the same idea. They also said that the one case Intellectual Ventures gives as their "poster child" of an "inventor whose idea was being used illegally until IV came along" actually had over 5500 duplicates granted in the same time frame (nevermind all the prior art that existed). That one patent, by the way, was traced to a patent troll company that is obligated to give Intellectual Ventures a cut of their revenue from it...and the creator of the patent is trying to sue them, IIRC. So much for "encouraging innovation by helping poor inventors".

    Another interesting statistic is that they cited polls claiming that 80% of software engineers say patents hurt their business and creativity. I know we've been repeating this to each other for years, but it's nice to see it backed up every now and then.

    • Another interesting statistic is that they cited polls claiming that 80% of software engineers say patents hurt their business and creativity. I know we've been repeating this to each other for years, but it's nice to see it backed up every now and then.

      Well that statistic might be correlated to the 80% of software engineers leave /. comments.

    • by dthirteen (307585)

      Actually I think their claimed 'prototypical inventor' was just involved in patent litigation, not specifically involved in litigation with intellectual ventures.

    • They visited a company that makes software to find duplicate patents, and they said that about 30% of patents granted are duplicates of the same idea.

      Do they mean in a legally distinguishable sense, or in a "we used the same or a very similar specification but have different claims in each patent directed to our several different inventions" sense? Forgive me for being suspicious of the correctness of this statement, but very few people on Slashdot (and off Slashdot, for that matter) understand how to read a patent and how to understand what it actually covers.

      • by robot256 (1635039)

        Well I'm assuming that the guy who makes a living telling investors whether their prospects' patents are unique (and thus valuable) knows more on the subject than I do. The point, I thought, was that even if they are legally distinguishable, the amount of "value added" is so little from one to the next that it's hard to consider them new inventions. All it does is make any one application infringe on even more patents.

        Another amusing quote was of a software engineer who said he has four patents in his na

    • Transcript here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/07/22/138576167/when-patents-attack" [npr.org]

      They also said that the one case Intellectual Ventures gives as their "poster child" of an "inventor whose idea was being used illegally until IV came along" actually had over 5500 duplicates granted in the same time frame (nevermind all the prior art that existed).

      Not quite... Actually, it's pretty clear that the journalists have no idea what they're talking about - they note three patents that [OMG] have the same title... while failing to note that two of them are continuations of the first one, and that they have very different claims. Their evidence for all of those duplicates, again, are the titles. Any patent practitioner, including myself, will tell you that titles have n

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Then you should know that patents on mathematics is illegal.

        And all software is mathematics - that is all a computer can do.

        computer -Noun
        1. An electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program.
        2. A person who makes calculations, esp. with a calculating machine.

        And an electronic device for storing and processing data is a calculating machine.

  • As the field is shaped by actual legislation, the only winning move in software development is being patent troll or big lobbyist. For anything else big success is probably followed by bigger setbacks by that kind of players.
  • OP sounds like a lawyer him/herself.
  • We like to blame companies that do shit like this, or the lawyers and lobbyists that enable and push them on, but the real problem is the underlying system that makes the appearance of such entities necessary and inevitable. In a world where software patents exist, you will have patent trolls. In a world where the idea of "intellectual property" is taken seriously, you will have lawyers defending said property. Fix the system, and these sorts of behaviors will go away as they will no longer be economically

    • by bmo (77928)

      >In a world where software patents exist, you will have patent trolls. In a world where the idea of "intellectual property" is taken seriously, you will have lawyers defending said property.

      [Don La Fontaine voice]

      In a world, where CEOs run their versions of the Mafia...In a world where Gordon Gecko is seen as a naive do-gooder...

      In a world, where the true gangsters wear shiny suits and red power ties...there's... Malone.

      "You wanna know how to get Intellectual Ventures? They pull a patent, you pull a lawy

      • by PPH (736903)

        "You wanna know how to get Intellectual Ventures? They pull a patent, you pull a lawyer. They send a brief to the court, you send one of them to the morgue. *That's* the *Chicago* way! And that's how you get Nathan Myhrvold. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm offering you a deal. Do you want this deal? "

        Funny. But in the era of offshored cloud computing, this may come close to the truth. You send your data off to a cloud processor (located who knows where in the world) and get work product back. But then some troll claims that they hold patent rights to the implemented process and attempts to serve papers.

        Serve papers where? Sure, some smart nerds could eventually crack Tor and find the country hosting the servers. But then what? Send a lawyer over to serve papers? There are enough countries that would lo

    • The average person has virtually no knowledge or understanding of patent law, and has no interest in becoming informed. The minority of us who do care and are informed are easily ignored with no political consequences for our elected representatives.

      So, indeed, the real problem is the political system. I also wonder why the discussions here on slashdot always get stuck at what's wrong with patents (we've heard all the arguments), instead of focusing on how the system could be changed.

      • by PPH (736903)

        The fix is closely coupled to what's wrong. So arguing about what's wrong is a necessary step in formulating a solution. But we can't even get people to agree on the exact problem, so that's where we are stuck.

        Actually, most people here can more or less agree on what the problem is. But the players in the system continue to throw out red herrings to distract the political system from the actual target. One thing I didn't hear in the NPR show was an analysis if Intellectual Ventures' lobbying efforts, poli

  • As a somewhat regular (minus long hiatuses) player of kingdom of loathing, I couldn't help but read the title like this >.

  • From the podcast it mentions a photo sharing site that got sued along with some 130 different companies. If 130 some odd companies came up with the same concept independently, doesn't that make the patent invalid as it would fail the obviousness requirement?
    • From the podcast it mentions a photo sharing site that got sued along with some 130 different companies. If 130 some odd companies came up with the same concept independently, doesn't that make the patent invalid as it would fail the obviousness requirement?

      Not if they all came up with it after the first guy released his product to market. Essentially, claiming that something is obvious after its been on sale for months by someone else is more sour grapes than legal evidence.

      • by St.Creed (853824)

        "Obvious" is a legal term, different from how you would interpret it - it only has a remote relationship with the English word "obvious".

        I just had a chat tonight with a software friend of mine who's now going to become an IP lawyer about this topic, patents and other good stuff, where this came up as well. Basically, he told me that "obvious" for patents is defined as: "if you take everything that has been written in the relevant literature previous to the patent application, and you can combine that to di

        • "Obvious" is a legal term, different from how you would interpret it - it only has a remote relationship with the English word "obvious".

          I just had a chat tonight with a software friend of mine who's now going to become an IP lawyer about this topic, patents and other good stuff, where this came up as well. Basically, he told me that "obvious" for patents is defined as: "if you take everything that has been written in the relevant literature previous to the patent application, and you can combine that to directly derive the idea, then it is obvious". Not even indirect derivations are obvious, even when normal people *would* consider them obvious.

          So even if 1000 companies come up with the idea, but don't write it up, or only come up with it *after* the patent application, then it's not defined as "obvious". It has to be published.

          Close, but not quite... While patent examiners certainly look at publications, non-published prior art is still available (except during reexams). So, if 1000 companies come up with the idea, and use it, they don't need separate write-ups. I am a US patent practitioner, and I've had everything from sales brochures to help screens cited as prior art for various things.

          Not quire sure what you mean though by "indirect derivations". Contrary to what your friend thinks, prima facie obviousness doesn't require

          • by St.Creed (853824)

            Hi,

            you're correct ofcourse - what was actually said was that there had to be a direct benefit for the combination, not a process whereby you have to combine known elements, and then combine *those* new elements in order to have the new invention (what I meant by indirect derivations). That would not be obvious, it had to be "one step" removed from known items, not two steps.

            I didn't know about the prior art in unpublished help screens counting as well, which is good to know. I'm not sure if there is a diffe

  • by Ophion (58479)
    This American Life is a Public Radio International (PRI) show, not a National Public Radio (NPR) one.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Um, how can the company be a troll if they don't sue anyone?

    Someone who works at Intellectual Ventures had a feature in Make magazine recently about his project to zap mosquitoes with lasers in order to control malaria.

    Also, they developed a plan to build a very cheap way to solve global warming by building a hose to spew sulphur into the upper reaches of the atmosphere just like a volcano does. This was described in the book "Super Freakonomics." I hadn't heard this idea before, and it is ingenious.

    Not e

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Um, how can the company be a troll if they don't sue anyone?

      IANAL, so I'm not familiar with the details, but I think it goes like this:

      • 1. make your company a holding company [wikipedia.org]
      • 2. split off a daughter company
      • 3. make the daughter company sue the pants off of a victim with one of your thousands of patents
      • 4a. if the lawsuit is lost, make daughter company go bankrupt. their only asset was the patent which is now invalidated anyway.
      • 4b. if the lawsuit is won, make sure the money is somehow transferred back to
  • One of their best.

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/

  • This is a problem of incentives. We could pass one three sentence law and clean up the patent mess within a couple decades:

    1. For each claim of a patent later overturned in court each defendant shall be paid $5,000,000 out of the general budget of the PTO; adjusted for inflation each year.
    2. Patent fees shall be be set by the PTO to be at minimum $1,000,000 per claim.
    3. Fees shall be set so as to collect sufficient revenues to fund all spending by the PTO plus an additional 5,000% (t

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