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Beware the King of the Patent Trolls 286

superapecommando writes "If you haven't heard of Intellectual Ventures, you may want to check this out. Set up by ex-Microsoftie Nathan Myhrvold, with investments from Microsoft among others, it is basically a patenting machine – filing and buying them in huge quantities. Note that it doesn't actually use these patents – except to threaten people with. In other words, Intellectual Ventures is a patent troll – or, rather the King of the Patent Trolls. So I was interested to come across this extremely positive blog post on the company. That it is so positive is hardly surprising, since the blog is called 'Tangible IP,' and subtitled 'ipVA's blog on adding value through intellectual property.' Nonetheless, it provides valuable insights into the mindset of fans of intellectual monopolies. Here's what it says about Intellectual Ventures: 'They are an invention house, and have adopted and reinvented leading edge patent strategies to create a portfolio of their own IP which, in its own, would be of high high worth.' They don't invent anything in the proper, deep sense of the word; they merely file and buy patents – with no intent of ever making stuff or solving real-life problems."
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Beware the King of the Patent Trolls

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  • You will do (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:12PM (#31614516)
    Excellent first sentence, really gets that article off to an awesome start.
    • by Trepidity ( 597 )

      It's not entirely unusual grammar in UK English, if somewhat informal.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 25, 2010 @03:38PM (#31616072)
      Nathan Myhrvold is a friend of Bill Gates. They wrote a book together, The Road Ahead [].

      It seems to me that abusiveness is their business. They feel they have to be against something to make money. They scrupulously avoid doing something positive.

      The book was an example of that. It was amazing. It seemed as though several editors went through the book carefully and removed any information that might be of interest. I say that because I don't think anyone could write a rough draft of such a long book that was entirely free of anything useful.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by spun ( 1352 )

        In the hierarchical world-view, it is not about how much you have. It is about how much more you have relative to everyone else. In a hierarchical world view, there is no such thing as 'win-win' because that keeps the relative positions unchanged, and that is a loss. All their are, are winners and losers. The game is played in order to force the losers into admitting they are losers, and acknowledging the winners. It is not played to accumulate wealth, that is just a means to an end.

  • If you haven't heard of Intellectual Ventures, you will do.

    Is that some sort of threat?

  • Information Economy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:16PM (#31614598)
    Information economy only works if you have mega army to enforce it.
    • ``Information economy only works if you have mega army to enforce it.''

      Which, of course, is actually the case.

      In Soviet Russia, information is controlled by YOU.

  • "If you haven't heard of Intellectual Ventures, you will do.

    That was the first line of the summary. Really, can't slashdot get an editor? Or even someone with journalism experience who would know to read something over before putting it on the front page? This story could not possibly have been so time-sensitive that it needed to bypass some common sense editing.

    • Re:Holy Summary Typo (Score:5, Informative)

      by schmidt349 ( 690948 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:23PM (#31614746)

      I hate idiot grammar trolls who don't understand that International English sometimes works differently from the American dialect. It's confusing to many English speakers from outside the US to use a naked modal verb without an auxiliary, and thus they use expressions like "I can do" or "I might do" rather than "I can" or "I might." In these cases "do" marks the absence of a true auxiliary. It's by no means ungrammatical or even unusual syntax.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Aranykai ( 1053846 )

        Regardless of regional colloquialisms, the entire summary is poorly written. Grammatically correct perhaps, but lacking in readability.

        • This summary is a fine example of British English prose style; the only flaw I can find is that it uses appositional clauses a bit excessively.

          There isn't one universal English style that will communicate any idea to anyone else who speaks English. For that matter, there aren't one or even two languages called English, but a whole host of them. I had a student from Singapore last year who was surprised to find out that American usage requires the verb "reply" to have an indirect object. He, and all his fell

      • Slashdot editors are Americans. The people who are supposed to edit stories speak the American dialect. So what is your point exactly? That because there are people in the world for who English is not the first language it is okay for a person for who it is, to suck at it?

        By that logic, a doctor doesn't have to know medicine since lots of people don't know medicine.

    • by k8to ( 9046 )

      It's not a typo, it's a colloquialism.

      Get out in the world sometime.

  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:20PM (#31614680)

    Their Wikipedia entry [] implies that they actually do a decent bit of R&D themselves. I wouldn't call a company that does R&D and licenses the heck out of its work "King of the Patent Trolls." Of course, that assumes that the Wikipedia entry is accurate and all that. I can handle a company making money off of pure R&D. What I cannot tolerate is a company that makes money off of patents that it bought from someone else when it has neither a R&D base nor a manufacturing base.

    • They dont do D, and R is limited to looking for patents to buy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      What I cannot tolerate is a company that makes money off of patents that it bought from someone else when it has neither a R&D base nor a manufacturing base.

      I don't have a problem with patent-only companies. Or rather, I dislike patent-only companies and hate patent trolls, but that's only because of the issues I have with patents more generally. As long as patents exist and are legal, it makes perfect sense (and is completely legitimate) for companies to spring up that deal exclusively in patents. In the same way that since stocks exist, are legal, and are ascribed value, it makes perfect sense for companies to spring up that deal only in buying and selling st

    • by Qzukk ( 229616 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @03:23PM (#31615830) Journal

      To me, what separates "patent troll" from "people with cool ideas and patents on them" is that one of them markets their product to people interested in developing them, and the other waits until someone else develops their product and jumps out and says "surprise!" More accurately, trolls try to claim the treble damages reward for "knowingly" infringing on the patent, despite the fact that the first anyone heard of the patent is the C&D after the product is already done and on the market. To keep the suspense up, trolls typically stretch patents in ways that nobody could have anticipated, and usually rely on the brain dead patent "continuation" mechanism to keep a patent application alive while adjusting it to fit what would otherwise be called prior art (PanIP's legendary rampage through the e-commerce sphere at the turn of the century was based on a patent "filed" in 1994 that was a continuation of a patent filed in 1984, meaning that all prior art had to be dated before 1984, even though the patent claimed to have invented things that were in use by others in the decade between).

      I don't know how this company does their business, but [] links to a blog at [] when you want to find out more about their patents. I'm sure if I put "shoot mosquitoes" or "mosquito laser" into google, I'll find that they've invented this, even if I have to "research" past the first page of hits (heck, they're even on the first page for "mosquito zapper").

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 )

      ``I wouldn't call a company that does R&D and licenses the heck out of its work "King of the Patent Trolls.''

      What is ARM []'s business model again? Are they intellectual property trolls? They certainly seem to be helping to bring a lot of good technology to the world.

    • Yeah, that's a nice story they have going there.

      On their website FAQ, go look for "How do you come up with your invention ideas?"

      The answer is:
      "IV's invention efforts center on "invention sessions" which are multidisciplinary brainstorming events focused on a particular set of issues and possible solutions. IV typically hosts several 1-2 day invention sessions per month."

      This process is described in more detail in the many breathless articles about IV. Their ideas come from reading papers written by people

  • " with no intent of ever making stuff "

    That is not, nor has it ever been, the point of patents.

    You could argue they do deserve the patent because they never intend to license, and thus is against the intent of the constitutionality of patents. However event that would be weak since congress determines patent laws.

    What they do is well within the patent concept.

    However, if you are talking about software or business methods, then those are clearly outside the intent of patents.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by magsol ( 1406749 )
      This might be naive on my part, but I would argue that the spirit of patents is to protect the inventor's innovation, which in theory would take the form of some sort of product. The protection would allow the inventor to reap the benefits of his/her brilliance.

      Essentially, making the invention process more "fair". But I think what we have instead is a system that's far from the spirit in which it was created.

      I'm not necessarily saying that's the right way to do things (Nietzsche would have a field da
      • by ljw1004 ( 764174 )

        The spirit of patents is, as you say, to protect the inventors innovation.

        The nature of a free market is that, through brokers and middle-men buying and selling stuff, everything achieves its correct price, and this price is a fair reflection of the worth of something.

        All this company's doing is acting as that broker, i.e. one of the cogs in the free market machine, with the effect that the market gets the correct price for patents.

        Blaming this company is like blaming corn speculators acting as the cogs tha

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Jer ( 18391 )

          Don't forget, though, that patent protection is a government intervention into the free market for a specific social purpose that society has deemed to be important (i.e. spurring innovation by rewarding innovators with a guarantee of return on investment). They are not natural outcomes of a free market system, they are in fact a specific counter to a problem that the free market creates (i.e. tragedy of the commons). As a government-granted construct they need to be watchdogged very carefully because the

  • by DdJ ( 10790 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:22PM (#31614734) Homepage Journal

    I don't know if anyone else around here remembers the state of slate/pen computing in the mid-to-late 90s, but there used to be a company called "General Magic" that made a touch-based graphical operating system for handhelds named "Magic Cap".

    As the company kinda fell apart, there was an effort by some of the developers to open source it. But their intellectual property had been sold to Intellectual Ventures, because of some agent technology their stuff included. (Basically, imagine setting up a search on the handheld, and then briefly connecting to the internet to let your "search agent" run around inside a cloud, analyzing data and performing calculations. Then you reconnect and your agent comes back to you and presents the stuff on your handheld.)

    Intellectual Ventures never really wanted most of the Magic Cap stuff. But they've made it so difficult to disentangle that the developers eventually gave up. Here's a writeup from one of the people involved. []

    General Magic made a graphical OS designed for handheld touch-based use, not based on a port of a desktop OS. And the people who built it tried to open-soruce it, but were blocked by Intellectual Ventures. If things had worked out differently, we might have had some really interesting work going on in the slate area long before the advent of the iPad.

    (Heck. I'd love to run MagicCap on an iPad. It's the perfect hardware platform for it. I have three MagicCap devices myself.)

  • Yet another reason (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pnewhook ( 788591 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:23PM (#31614736)

    Yet another reason to completely scrap the patent process as the original intent of patents has been completely corrupted by lawyers.

  • by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:23PM (#31614744) []

    And, and a tip of my hat to Microsoft "innovation".

  • by ciaran_o_riordan ( 662132 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:25PM (#31614790) Homepage

    Please help document there here: [] is a way to build a wealth of info for when we need it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 )

      What does that site offer that Wikipedia lacks? On a wiki about software patents I would expect to find a list of the patents companies hold, for example. That appears to be encyclopedic information, which is exactly what Wikipedia is. I've seen a couple links to it posted here, by you or someone else, so I'm just curious what it brings to the discussion that isn't already there.

  • by beakerMeep ( 716990 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:28PM (#31614846)
    Instead of clicking through to the patent blog, here's the economist article that started the debate. []
  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:31PM (#31614912)

    Whenever a capitalist talks about "adding value" or "creating wealth", they're really talking about creating scarcity. "Intellectual property" is the purest form of artificial scarcity, restricting the use of ideas, which otherwise can travel freely from mind to mind with negligible actual cost. A more mundane example is the way building houses drives up the cost of property by reducing the pool of available (or at least desirable) undeveloped property. (The housing bubble pushed this past the point of viability by building more houses than there were buyers for, but between inevitable population growth and the physical decline of abandoned houses, the situation will eventually return to normal.)

    We end up with deceptive terms like "creating wealth" because few people would be enthusiastic about creating scarcity except, of course, for the people who already own the commodity being made scarce. Everyone else just ends up paying more for less. Intellectual property is particularly egregious in this sense because the scarcity is completely artificial, as opposed to real estate, where there really is a limited supply of raw material. Ideas, even good ones, are cheap and plentiful and very seldom actually unique; "ownership" is rather arbitrarily awarded to the company that has the resources to afford the patent process and gets it through the door first, with a strong incentive to do so as vaguely and broadly as possible so as to throttle as much actual creativity as possible.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Whenever a capitalist talks about "adding value" or "creating wealth", they're really talking about creating scarcity.

      Yes, that's true for companies that build "brands", rather than making a better product.

      But, for Adam Smithites, anything you do to a product to make it more salable is "adding value."

      For instance, you could grow trees, but most people don't have a use for a full grown tree. If you cut it into firewood, you've added value to the tree, and more people will pay you more money for the firewood, than for a full sized tree. If you instead turn the trees into fine furniture, you can get paid even more.

    • by Necron69 ( 35644 ) <> on Thursday March 25, 2010 @05:01PM (#31617572)

      Ok, so per your argument, Apple hasn't "created wealth" with the iPhone, they've really just created an "iPhone scarcity"? Someone had better tell Steve Jobs and Apple shareholders this...

      While I'm not a fan of patent trolls, economics is not a zero sum game and wealth is most definitely something that can be created (or destroyed). Here's some reading for you to start fixing your woeful lack of education on this subject: []


  • by smellsofbikes ( 890263 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:36PM (#31615008) Journal
    I'm not defending IP hoarders, and I think the general idea that Intellectual Ventures is pursuing is abhorrent, but they do indeed make things. Two weeks ago, Slashdot had a front-page article about a mosquito-killing laser system [] intended to be placed remotely and autonomously wipe out mosquitos, in an attempt to reduce malaria. Intellectual Ventures designed and built the functional system, which they've displayed in several places.

    If anyone would like to read a somewhat middle-of-the-road (neither "IV IS GREAT!" nor "IP is the DEVIL!") discussion of Intellectual Ventures, The New Yorker did a somewhat in-depth article on them last year [] that I thought was interesting. I (being of the IP is the DEVIL! mindset) don't think he addressed the problems to society at large with having companies that primarily chew up intellectual advancement space by pre-emptive patenting. But, on the other hand, patents are time-limited, and if they patent lots and lots of stuff that just isn't feasible given current tech, in 20 years when it IS feasible, there will be prior art and the areas won't be patentable, so that could be a plus.

    • Yeah, gotta say, for a company that doesn't invent stuff... how'd they make a laser skeeter killer? I thought a patent troll (like, say, NTP) doesn't go through the trouble of manual labor outside of signing the checks to lawyers.

    • If anyone would like to read a somewhat middle-of-the-road (neither "IV IS GREAT!" nor "IP is the DEVIL!")

      As a Satanist, I would like to say that I find your usage of those two ideas as extreme opposites offensive.

      However, as a Satanist, I find causing offense to be commendable. So, carry on!

  • What if... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:42PM (#31615114) Homepage

    What if you could only own a patent if you manufactured something that used it? That would mean old unused patents would become public domain once they weren't needed (as determined by the market - if nobody was buying things that used it, and nobody made anything that used it, then the inventor could not hold the patent) Similarly, it means no one could buy a patent unless they were actively using it. It would remain with the original owner, or revert to the public domain if they went out of business.

    I guess you might need protections then, to keep companies from just destroying another company to force the patents into the public domain. That could get sticky.

    Could we do this with copyrights too? Ex: If you stop selling a book or piece of music, or stop selling a piece of software, it becomes public domain. That would help a lot with old video games. Hmm... what about art, where the artist doesn't want to make copies. Hmm....

    Thoughts anyone?

    • Question #1:
      If I'm the inventor, do I have to physically crank the handle myself, or can I hire someone else to do that for me?

      Question #2:
      Under your suggestion, if I own a patent (I'm the inventor, I manufacture) can I still sue other people for patent infringement?
      Or do you propose changing the nature of patents so that they grant the owner some sort of freedom-to-operate to practice their invention?

  • They *paid* money to someone for their invention. Someone, supposedly,
    figured out something interesting, and, for whatever reason, decided
    to take his money and run rather than let the invention stagnate.

    Now, I don't like it when the patents are not for anything interesting
    or novel, but simply being a patent troll is not a bad thing. Being a patent
    troll of "obvious stupid" patents does seem like a bad thing
    and is more of a fault of the people who *granted* the patent
    to begin with.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      They *paid* money to someone for their invention. Someone, supposedly, figured out something interesting, and, for whatever reason, decided to take his money and run rather than let the invention stagnate.

      Did they pay more than the cost of getting the patent in the first place? Can someone make a living selling patents to companies like IV?

      Why this matters: If you can make a living creating stuff, then selling the patents to people who actually build stuff, then the patent system mostly works. If they are only finding almost dead patent holders, crushed by the system, offering them pennies on the dollar, then the system could use some tweaking.

      An amazing number of inventors died penniless and insan

  • by Hurricane78 ( 562437 ) <deleted@slashdot ... minus physicist> on Thursday March 25, 2010 @02:54PM (#31615312)

    I don’t know how it is in the US, but in Germany, if you don’t actually use a patent, then after a specific time, your patent automatically becomes void.
    This is to stop people who aren’t serious about doing something with it. Because then, the original point of the patent goes away.

  • Intellectual Ventures is the parent of TerraPower, which we discussed here on /. a few days ago. You may recall: Bill Gates May Build Small Nuclear Reactor. []
    • Oh wait, I get it... Bill Gates, et. al. (aka the Borg), Intellectual Property, and Nuclear Energy all under one roof. They MUST BE EVIL!
  • by time961 ( 618278 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @03:42PM (#31616154)
    I haven't crossed paths (yet) with IV, but I do believe that they are fundamentally evil. They're a natural consequence of bad laws and legal practice.

    They like to describe their model as "Hey, Mr. Inventor, we'll buy your patents, or help you patent your stuff, and even pay you to work on it". This approach is appealing in principle, and to be sure, it does put some money in the hands of those inventors.

    The problem is that what the Patent Office treats as an "invention" is almost completely unrelated to what constitutes an "invention" in the real world of commerce. A patent-office invention is just an idea. It doesn't have to be manufacturable, it doesn't have to be a viable product, it even doesn't have to work. It just has to be interesting and complicated enough that a relatively unskilled patent examiner cannot find a good reason to deny a patent. And since the examiner has only limited time (small number of hours) to examine each invention, and he's goaled on patents issued, not denied, well, pretty much anything can be patented.

    (When I refer to examiners as "relatively unskilled", I don't mean that they're dummies--but rather, that they are generally less practiced in the art of patent management than the high-powered patent attorneys who craft the applications they're reading. Indeed, an awful lot of good examiners end up turning into those high-paid attorneys, after taking a few yeas of "training" at the Patent Office.)

    A real-world invention, on the other hand, has to be something that makes money. It has to work. It has to be manufacturable. It has to be sufficiently well-developed as a product that people want to buy it. And getting to there from the idea stage requires real resources: money to pay engineers, money to advertise and market, etc. And ultimately, of course, a real-world invention has to make a profit: the costs ought not to exceed the revenues.

    So what IV is mostly doing is creating or buying patent-office inventions and using those to extract money from entrepreneurs and companies that are trying to create real-world inventions. They're a tax on the real resources that are required to turn an invention into a product, and in that role, they far more often prevent useful products from reaching the market, by increasing their development costs too much for a profitable result. Sure, there are a few poster-child inventions where IV has invested their own resources, or where someone else's profit is feasible even at IV's royalty rates, but those cases are rare--and exist for press releases.

    IV's costs are minimal, because they mostly just get smart people together to brainstorm. The ideas are copied down by patent attorneys, turned into applications by IV's legal team, and pushed through the Patent Office. Once issued, a patent is presumptively valid, and fighting it is a crapshoot. So if IV comes to you, you either license or fold, because they have more and better lawyers. They generally do nothing to turn an IV patent into a real-world invention, and they bear none of those real costs.

    It is a brilliant business model. At minimal costs, IV exploits a fundamental and likely unfixable problem with the patent process, namely that most modern inventions are too sophisticated, complex, and interrelated for the process to address--yet the government guarantees a monopoly, so you have to play within the system, or be subject to patent litigation that is completely unpredictable (except for its multi-million dollar cost). The patent "reform" proposals floating around just nibble at the edges; the system itself is fundamentally broken.
  • Lucrative business. (Score:3, Informative)

    by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @03:57PM (#31616438)

    Owning patents is a very lucrative business beyond merely patent trolling. I've worked with a number of clients who own a bunch of patents, ranging from a handful up to a few hundred. They're routinely traded, sold or licensed. Sometimes I'm left with the impression that it's like trading Pokemon or baseball cards. Its basically trading in information. In one particular case the patents all fall under a range of related of technologies and services which the company is actively developing. In other cases it seems like investors pick and choose patents they consider to have potential and develop the technology to a point where it can be sold off for a hefty sum to another company.

    To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about it. In many of these cases they end up doing something with the patents but there's something about this that leaves me with the impression that it's violating the spirit and intent of the patent system. But one thing is certain, we're unlikely to see any substantial and profound changes in the patent system because too many people have too much to gain from the system in its current form. And I think one of the underlying problems here is the litigious nature of this country. Perhaps we need a loser-pays system introduced?

  • No soul required. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anachragnome ( 1008495 ) on Thursday March 25, 2010 @05:53PM (#31618312)

    The main requirement for entering this business--inventing things--is a complete lack of a soul (or conscience, if you'd rather).

    It is pure greed and power mongering the way things stand and in the end the result is LESS innovation.

    When I was 20, I used to do Q/A for a company that made lancets (a device to prick the skin to draw a drop of blood for analysis, usually blood sugar levels). One day I realized that there was a better way. The device I was inspecting daily had over 30 parts and ended up costing the retail customer around $35. They still had to purchase disposable tips that were one-use only and had to be safely discarded so as not to infect others.

    In less then a week I had a flawlessly-working prototype of a disposable, single-use device that not only was sterile (didn't rely on packaging to achieve), but also cost less then $.10 to make and had ONE moving part (for a total of three parts in its entirety) and was completely safe to simply throw away (the needle that did the actual pricking was drawn back inside the case after it did it's thing), making it particularly attractive to hospitals.

    I tried to shop the idea to my employer who seemed totally unimpressed and never brought it up again. I then tried to shop it to Becton-Dickenson (the worlds largest maker of syringes) and was pretty much told they didn't accept submissions from outside their own R/D dept.

    A few months ago my mother hands me one. The device I designed. It turns out the doctor she saw that day had used it on her and she decided to keep it and show it to me. It was essentially my design with the sterility factor removed. They relied on the packaging to keep the device sterile until used.

    After some research, it turns out that not only did my ex-employer have his name on the patent for it, but also the guy I spoke to on the phone at Becton-Dickinson. They had somehow both found out the other knew about the idea, waited 7 years to patent (since I did not patent it in that time) then simply co-submitted the patent, then went into production. They sell it to this day.

    In short, they could have written me a check for $5k (I was hurting for tuition back then and could REALLY have used it), had full rights to the idea and not had to wait 7 years. Instead, they CHOSE to simply fuck me over. Nice guys.

    Now, I ask you slash-dotters, what fucking incentive do I have to EVER bother trying my hand at inventing again? The knowledge that my idea at least made it to people that can use it?

Syntactic sugar causes cancer of the semicolon. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982