Coming off the heels of Tim Cook’s proclamation that patent litigation is “a pain in the ass”, D10 hosted a person who, in the eyes of just about everyone, is the actual pain that Cook feels in his ass. Nathan Myhrvold, formerly Microsoft’s CTO, now runs an outfit called Intellectual Ventures. Their business model is simple: buy up as many patents as possible and use them to shake down companies for licensing fees. Contrary to the public’s opinion about what IV does, this is not racketeering. Just ask Myhrvold:
We like to say invention capital. Our goal is to invest in invention. We file patents ourselves on our own inventions or those that partner with us. We also have a business like private equity, where we take a controlling interest in existing patent portfolios — from universities, from all over the place.
Except that the ratio of IV-generated patents to bought-out-and-weaponized patents is in the neighborhood of 30-1. But don’t let the obvious predatory nature of Myhrvold’s business be the only criterium upon which you judge. He’s also quite the humanitarian. From the (highly recommended) NPR profile of Myhrvold and IV:
IV says it has invented a nuclear technology that’s safer and greener than existing technologies. A cooler that can keep vaccines cold for months without electricity. And the world’s most high-tech mosquito zapper.
So despite running a business that models itself after a Mafia protection scheme, beneath that slimy exterior beats a heart of pure gold.
But the lab is a tiny fraction of what IV does. The company has received about 1,000 patents on stuff it’s come up with at the lab; it’s purchased roughly 30,000 patents from other people. In fact, nothing that’s come out of this lab — not the mosquito zapper, not the nuclear technology — has made it into commercial use.
Oops. I’m sure the humanitarian efforts are totally not a smokescreen for a scummy business model and will yield a solution to global warming and malaria any day now.
Father Time did a pretty admirable job trying to rattle Myhrvold, but when you’ve been at this game as long as he has, you’ve got your “totally misunderstood” lines down pat. Mossberg laid down a line that sent his stock soaring in my eyes: ”You just buy up patents and then you sue people, and I don’t understand how that helps innovation and creativity in the world.” Myhrvold quipped “Mostly, we license patents; we don’t mostly sue people.” So I assume the patents IV has acquired that it has yet to monetize are held for posterity. Mostly.
Engadget has some good coverage of the Mummer’s Farce here. I have to assume Myhrvold’s insistence on speaking publicly stems from an inherent masochism – or prolonged exposure to Ballmer – because I don’t think there’s an intelligent person on the planet who buys this guy’s schtick anymore.