Ex-Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold has been called “an avuncular elder statesman of the tech industry.”
So which is it: tech hero or villain?
Patent trolls, or Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs), make most of their money by “enforcing” their patents, either by suing companies or getting them to licence those patents.
Unlike some alleged trolls, Intellectual Ventures does make some of its own technology. It just doesn’t make that much technology. Intellectual Ventures has 1,000 patents on stuff it invented, along with 30,000 patents it bought from other folks, This American Life reported.
As early as 2006, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on the fears that Intellectual Ventures’ patent portfolio caused in the hearts of tech giants:
With his pink cheeks, curly blond hair, and jovial manner, he can seem almost cherubic. But not everybody views Myhrvold as an angel—far from it. That’s because Intellectual Ventures is not just a think tank where big brains sit around dreaming up ideas. It also has a second business, one that is generating controversy: buying patents. In fact, that’s a much larger part of the operation. Maintaining secrecy through shell companies and nondisclosure agreements, often swooping in aggressively to seal deals, it has scooped up thousands of patents and is on the prowl for many more. That has many people in the tech world worried.
Buying up patents has apparently been a lucrative business.
“Nathan Myhrvold is a very, very, very smart man. He may be the wealthiest man on Earth when all is said and done,” Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of the health care startup CareZone and the former chief exec of Sun Microsystems, told CNET. “Congratulations on arbitraging the patent system.”
It’s easy to see why a startup founder might be bitter about Myhrvold’s venture. Intellectual Ventures has so many patents that little companies could come up with new technology and not even realise they’re “infringing” these patents.
Despite all of this, Myhrvold considers himself a champion of innovation.
Myhrvold defended his company at an All Things D Digital Conference by arguing that his company’s “goal is to invest in invention.”
“We call it invention capital,” he said. “We believe it’s important for there to be a liquid capital market around any valuable asset.”
He’s also implied that big tech companies that complain about “trolls” are big hypocrites.
“Look, this is a year when the biggest companies in Silicon Valley are doing exactly what I do,” Myhrvold has said, according to Forbes. “Microsoft, Apple, Facebook all bought huge patent portfolios to further their strategic game. They’re doing what I’m doing!”
Big companies including Google might call for patent reform, but Myhrvold correctly suggests they benefit from turning patents into money. Gigaom’s Derreck Harris also pointed out recently that tech companies have a love-hate relationship with patents. They complain about “trolls” but can’t seem to stop suing each other for infringement.
The tech community appears to have love-hate relationship with Myhrvold too. After all, a number of big tech companies including Apple and Microsoft actually invested in Intellectual Ventures. While the lion’s share of Intellectual Ventures’ money comes from buying patents, the company does work with actual inventors to create new ideas.
In fact, when Myhrvold started the company, he did so because he wanted to “make insights—to come up with ideas, patent them, and then licence them to interested companies,” according to a 2008 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.
He hasn’t given up on innovation, even though he has gotten a lot of cash from other people’s patents. The truth is he’s both an innovator, a champion of innovation, and a really good businessman.
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