PublishedJune 3, 2013

Dear Intellectual Ventures, Part 3: NPR Showed You’re A Patent Troll, Get Over It

This post is the latest in the Dear Intellectual Ventures series.

This weekend, This American Life aired the follow up to When Patents Attack!

The episode couldn’t be more timely, with patent troll legislation being considered in Congress.

The great thing about the follow-up is that we learn some important details that the reporters weren’t able to find out for the first segment. And it turns out (surprise!) that Intellectual Ventures wasn’t exactly truthful.

Remember the patent that This American Life focused on? The named inventor was someone named Chris Crawford, who sold the patent to IV. Crawford’s patent claimed to cover updating computer software remotely. Leaving aside the fact that the idea wasn’t new, it wasn’t even Crawford’s. He stole it from his business partners and named only himself on the application. Is this the kind of inventor that IV really wants to be “protecting”?

There’s no evidence that Intellectual Ventures knew about Crawford’s conduct, but it seems unlikely that IV bothered to ask too many questions. After all, it’s extremely difficult to prove either fraud on the PTO or incorrect inventorship in court.

But the more interesting tidbit in the story is the deal that IV made to sell the patent to the patent troll Oasis Research. IV claimed that it had no control over what Oasis did with the patent, so if Oasis happened to act like a troll, IV’s hands were clean.

Except that it turns out that IV takes 90% of whatever Oasis makes from the patent. That’s basically money laundering, with Oasis getting a 10% fee for keeping IV’s tentacle prints off the cash. I don’t mean to imply any illegality — I just mean that IV is being dishonest, claiming that it’s not a patent troll while at the same time sending its hired gun, Oasis, out to do the dirty work. Are we really supposed to believe that IV gets 90% of the money Oasis makes, but IV has no say in how that money is made?

IV’s denials of being a patent troll remind me of a classic scene from Casablanca:

IV’s seeming inability to acknowledge what it’s doing shouldn’t be too surprising, I suppose. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

As to everyone else, if you still believe that Intellectual Ventures is anything more than a patent troll with better funding and nicer suits, I have a proverbial bridge to sell you.

And this brings me back to a question I was trying to get at a couple of weeks ago: what is the benefit to society of allowing patent trolls like Intellectual Ventures to enforce patents at all? How does making IV and people like Chris Crawford richer help promote the useful arts?

If you have a real answer, I’d love to hear it.

Matt Levy

Previously, Matt was patent counsel at the Computer & Communications Industry Association

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