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Does Recent Goodwill Undo Years of Patent Trolling For Intellectual Ventures? 90

CowboyNeal writes "Controversial patent-holding company Intellectual Ventures has been covered on Slashdot before, but a recent CNET article takes a look inside the company, at how they work, and what they have planned for the future. Read below to find out if they are merely a patent-troll, or if their shrewd tactics belie a more noble master plan?"

Intellectual Ventures was first founded in 2000, and since then has acquired an amazing portfolio of patents and "intellectual assets." Even the most conservative of estimates, indicate over 30,000 purchased patents and applications, and over 2000 inventions developed in-house. It's a rather staggering amount of intellectual property for a company that itself does not produce any products.

In the process of collecting the aforementioned patents and inventions, Intellectual Ventures has made itself into a grim spectre haunting the tech industry, garnering it's share of bad press over the years, including a segment on This American Life on NPR, which goes so far as to compare Intellectual Ventures to the mafia, engaging in an IP protection racket. CNET describes the company as having a split personality, in which one part resembles a think tank, where people both create and refine new ideas to solve problems large and small, another part is an "altruistic do-gooder," while the final part is the patent-troll side they've been showing us previously.

During the tour of the company, devices are shown off that include everything from a laser-wielding bug zapper to a microscope for early malaria detection. Intellectual Ventures purports to represent the inventors behind these devices and more, while preparing to spin them off into new companies. One such earlier device, a new nuclear reactor, made headlines again recently as Bill Gates has begun investing in it. A second company has also launched recently. Kymeta, which is also funded in part by Gates, aims to improve wireless broadband access using better satellite connections.

While the inventions that are showcased have a serious cool factor about them, there's still the underlying notion that the invention side of the business is funded by their patent-trolling activities. While no one can really fault advances in fighting malaria or polio, for every new idea they have come up with, there are hundreds of shell companies, such as the infamous Lodsys, who do little but stifle innovation in the industry.

Because Intellectual Ventures and its shell companies have no actual products of their own, they're well-suited to the rigors of patent litigation. Most smaller companies aren't designed or prepared for a patent war. When a company is sued for violating one of Intellectual Ventures' patents, that company now has to divert resources away from making its products, and focus on defending its right to make those products. Just the discovery phase of a lawsuit can bring normal work to a halt, or at the least greatly impede forward progress. Since a company like Intellectual Ventures or one of its shell corporations, is prepared for the suit from the beginning, and has nothing to halt production on, they're much better poised to handle the ongoing work of a court case, and begin the case with a distinct advantage.

So after twelve years, 30,000 pieces of various forms of intellectual property, 1300 patent-holding shell corporations, and a network of 3000 inventors, only two companies have been spun off from Intellectual Ventures. That seems like a rather high price to pay, and a recent Forbes story seems to agree. That doesn't even take into account the damage that has been to industry as a result of the numerous patent cases.

In a recent response to company criticism, Intellectual Ventures has been advertising for a newly-created position, the vice president of Global Good. It seems to me that before hiring another suit, they could easily pull from their pool of around 3000 inventors, and have a few dozen or so just say what their potential products are, and how Intellectual Ventures has helped them on the road to market. This wouldn't exonerate Intellectual Ventures from their patent trolling by any means, but it would be a first step in the right direction. CNET wasn't able to talk to any inventors at length during their tour. Most of the images of inside Intellectual Ventures are of empty rooms, where employees either weren't currently working, or were required to be removed entirely. This renders it awfully hard to put a human face on any possible good that may be going on inside Intellectual Ventures. Reading through past Intellectual Ventures press releases doesn't produce any either. What it does provide, however, is a long list of companies that have been forced to partner with or license rights from Intellectual Ventures. Despite any good intentions they may assert, their track record speaks otherwise. Even if you apply the adage that one has to break a few eggs to make an omelet, they've broken tens of thousands of eggs, and made only a few omelets.

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Does Recent Goodwill Undo Years of Patent Trolling For Intellectual Ventures?

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  • No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nerdfest ( 867930 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @01:45PM (#41112295)

    Actions speak louder than words.

  • Then that must be how prisoners get out of jail... o.O
  • Nathan Myhrvold? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @01:47PM (#41112323) Homepage Journal

    Don't doubt the depths of the evil here. The kind that moralises about the good it does.

    • While some may equate the two, my view is not that he is evil- he is greedy.
      • by Anonymous Coward
      • by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @03:00PM (#41113135) Homepage Journal

        Yes, but you repeat yourself. :-)

        He lies in SO MANY ways through this one, seemingly simple, statement in the article, alone:

        "The set of incentives that go around patents, that's part of how the system works. Inventors should get rich. We should have more inventors. It's good for everybody,"

        Right. What a Satan, disguised in human form. Myhrvold's out there - using his billion-dollar leverage to ensure the Philo Farnsworths and Nicola Teslas of our time get the just and proportional, individual rewards - commensurate with their foundational contributions.


        The "inventors" that he ensures riches for are other large corporations. The "owners" of intellectual "property". He's like a loan shark, claiming that "working stiffs deserve an equal chance a getting a little credit".

        If there's a heart of darkness inside of Microsoft, Myhrvold is one of the Cabal of three or four, who made it so.

        • Re:Nathan Myhrvold? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Nemesisghost ( 1720424 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @03:15PM (#41113305)
          I totally agree. If he was all about making sure that the disenfranchised inventors like Tesla don't get bullied by the Edison's of the world, then why the hell is he one of the Edison's? Why is he making money off of the lawsuits his company wages against people? I don't see him any different than the RIAA in suing people so that they can "pay" their artists. If it was all about the inventors/artists then more of the litigation & licensing money would go towards the inventors/artists and these leach companies would die of their own altruism.
          • Re:Nathan Myhrvold? (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Peristaltic ( 650487 ) * on Friday August 24, 2012 @05:15PM (#41115155)

            Of note is how Myhrvold has applied his substantial intellect to rationalizing his behavior- a pity such superb intelligence exists side-by-side with such sub-par ethics.

            “There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful.”

            Oscar Wilde

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Even if they end up doing good the ends do not justify the means.
    • i'm ambivalent about the whole thing.

      their model is amoral (in the sense of there's no moral dimension at all - good or bad). it merely requires a good or evil intention to make IV good or evil.

      they appear to be regular venture capitalists who would like the IP as a condition of funding. this is actually good for small inventors who would otherwise not be able to (easily) realise their inventions, certainly not before someone better funded could develop them first.

      i'm all for stifling innovation where "in

  • by gweihir ( 88907 )

    They are scum and need to pay for their crimes. They possibly caused immensely more economic damage.

    • This is something like a mass murder saying "I only kill the occasional person now, stop hating me."

    • by Jonner ( 189691 )

      They are scum and need to pay for their crimes. They possibly caused immensely more economic damage.

      Whether they are personally scum or not, their success is an example of how sick the patent system has become. In general, business that makes huge profits while doing very little of use to anyone else is a symptom of a bigger problem.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If they actually do something useful and it actually helps others, yes.
    Until then, they are a worthless abuser of the patent system by having nothing to show for any of said patents.

    I can think of about a hundred things that can help millions of lives right now and could go over to some poor country to help. (even without multiple millions in revenue)
    But groups like these hold people like us back because we'd end up having OUR lives ruined because they want to be the only ones who can help anybody.
    If you a

  • A Few More Notes (Score:5, Informative)

    by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn@ g m a i l .com> on Friday August 24, 2012 @01:51PM (#41112371) Journal
    You forgot to mention that two of the big founders of IV are Nathan Myhrvold and Edward Jung of Microsoft. So yeah when Bill Gates is trying to hook them up with a huge licensing deal or when Gates is pumping money into them, it's a sort of Old Boys network thing going on there. I'm certain that you will find the "two companies" that are spun off as being completely in bed with Microsoft.

    So the other thing I'd like to bring up is the This American Life question of IV as to who they've actually helped. And they kept saying the same case: Chris Crawford. But of course, they couldn't get a hold of Crawford, they found out that IV no longer managed it and, in fact, Crawford is in litigation with IV. So basically the one thing that they offered as proof of their purpose was bunk. And then, of course, they stopped talking to This American Life.

    Even if you apply the adage that one has to break a few eggs to make an omelet, they've broken tens of thousands of eggs, and made only a few omelets.

    Yeah, Microsoft omelets. It's a self-serving shell company that sues the shit out of everyone and forces others into agreements or litigation. They can't even offer up one person that will sing their praises of helping them successfully manage their IP portfolio. And that, good friend, is why they're compared to the mafia.

    A "step in the right direction"? You'll excuse my skepticism until I see some results for malaria, polio, and HIV ... even if they can put a dent in those problems while lining their own pockets I'd be impressed. Sadly, the simpler explanation is that they have a very large portfolio and some of these tackle very serious diseases and by holding them up they can justify their lawsuits and patent trolling that is driving the industry backwards!

    • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @02:23PM (#41112755) Homepage

      It's just the same modius operandi that Bill Gates has used, that Andrew Carnegie and other "robber barons" have used for centuries - make shitloads of money by various immoral / unethical / illegal means and then use 'philanthropy' to gain admission to heaven or at least public acceptance of their previous behaviors. This isn't new, it's not helpful to the world at large and society would be better off if it prevented the immoral / unethical and / or illegal behaviors in the first place.

      • ...and then use 'philanthropy' to gain admission to heaven or at least public acceptance of their previous behaviors.

        And/or some additional options: invest in industries that profit from exploiting people and natural resources (Africa comes to mind) and then apply "philanthropy" to in a fashion favorable to your (or your silent partners') interests...

      • also, the kind of philanthropy and charity they usually indulge in wouldn't "get them into heaven" anyways. microsoft office donations to schools was designed to lock kids into using their software from an early age. large scale donations to universities and such are done on the condition that the construction company they own does the work. all such folks generally feed the poor, but keep them reliant on handouts instead of empowering them. and all of the mentioned tend to give them tax credits so its not
      • It's just the same modius operandi that Bill Gates has used, that Andrew Carnegie and other "robber barons" have used for centuries - make shitloads of money by various immoral / unethical / illegal means and then use 'philanthropy' to gain admission to heaven or at least public acceptance of their previous behaviors.

        Al Capone used it too.

      • It's just the same modius operandi that Bill Gates has used, that Andrew Carnegie and other "robber barons" have used for centuries - make shitloads of money by various immoral / unethical / illegal means and then use 'philanthropy' to gain admission to heaven or at least public acceptance of their previous behaviors. This isn't new, it's not helpful to the world at large and society would be better off if it prevented the immoral / unethical and / or illegal behaviors in the first place.

        Foundations aren't just for changing public perception of past misdeeds. They're a massive tax-shelter. Why didn't the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation want to fund Dean Kaman's Slingshot [wikipedia.org]? They'd be known for solving one of the greatest problems that developing countries face; access to clean drinking water.

    • All those people who like to say, "Microsoft's not so evil anymore. The 80s and 90s are over," are the ones who've never heard of SCO or IV. The ones who have no idea what happened to Nokia or why their .doc files now have an 'x' on the end of them. People who assume that anything with the word 'charity' attached to it is unquestionably good. I'd really like to know how Gates pumping money into his crony's business that aids his own company leverage its monopoly is charity.

      Bill Gates is like Darth Sidious:

  • Was Intellectual Ventures in the book "Freakanomics"?

    I don't have access to that book anymore but I seem to remember that a very IV type company was in that book because of their anti-global warming idea.

    • Was Intellectual Ventures in the book "Freakanomics"?

      I don't have access to that book anymore but I seem to remember that a very IV type company was in that book because of their anti-global warming idea.

      Uh I think it was Superfreakonomics and they even brag about it [intellectu...reslab.com]. I would like to clarify that it's not 'anti-global warming idea' so much as a patent on how to engineer the temperature by pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to cool the planet.

      • But weren't they also the authors of the idea to build huge floating devices to use for ocean cooling?

        Maybe I'm getting the ideas mixed up and one of the ideas was an anti-hurricane device.

  • by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @02:01PM (#41112473) Homepage

    I don't care if they stand in the heavenly courts and fart choir music, the ends don't justify extortion to fund their business model.

  • by mspohr ( 589790 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @02:01PM (#41112481)

    They are a classic monopolist. They use government regulations (patents) to gain monopoly control and extort payments from everyone else. In order to assuage their guilt, they develop some "good causes". Of course, the good causes they choose are idiosyncratic and based on their own value system and not necessarily something that society would have done with the money had they been allowed to keep it in the first place.

    Andrew Carnegie is an earlier example of this. He was a ruthless businessman who built a steel monopoly and benefited greatly from government regulations (which he tailored to his needs) and used unsavory methods to put his competitors out of business. He also ruthlessly exploited his workers (see: Homestead strike). Later in life he felt Christian guilt and gave away his money (I guess he figured out he couldn't take it with him) to libraries, schools, churches (he was very big into church organs).

    I personally think it is better to have society as a whole determine what to do with resources rather than have government empower individuals to amass great wealth and have those individuals spend it on their pet projects.

    • Pretty much what I think of whenever I hear on public radio "...what Andrew Carnegie described as real and permanent good."

      There was a local politician in my area who is now spoken of favorably by almost everyone. In fact, during his reign as mayor, he seemed OK until there was an opportunity to grab land about to be acquired by the city from the railroad for his own business, something he likely could not have pulled off had he not been mayor or on the city council. When he died, the local newspaper includ

      • Should the papers have only said that John Gotti was a spiffy dresser when he died?

        They might have mentioned how Gotti chainsawed to death the guy that was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Gotti's son rode his bike out in front of the guy's car...

        • Actually he ordered Charles Carneglia to kidnap him and boil him in acid.

    • >church organs

      So he was an organ donor?

  • An other case of anyone who disagrees with your view point must be evil.

    Companies/People/Real Life. Isn't cut dry Good and Evil, we all do things that other will not like. Some things that we do and think as Good, is considered as Evil by someone else. Sometimes things we feel bad about doing, really isn't a big deal.

    Sometimes people change, they admit they were wrong, and change their actions, most of the time they will stubbornly stick by their views no matter what is actually the evidence is. Sometim

    • by Anonymous Coward

      What? This isn't about "Anyone who disagrees with me MUST BE EVIL." This is about a company who is causing real damage in the world with lawsuits over silly patents. And as far as we can tell, they will continue to cause real damage in the world. Hiring a "Vice President of Global Good" doesn't mean you are actually good, it means you are worried about PR.

      • This is a company that eats babies....

        Oh wait, sorry, it has a bunch of patents of useless crap, and sues people who reinvent the useless crap, or has them pay money to sell the useless crap.

    • by mjr167 ( 2477430 )
      Hey wait... are you speaking of being rational? Of not burning a company to the ground just cause some talking head told me they were the evil incarnate? Now who's being crazy. Everyone knows that if they were the same color shirt as you they are good and if they don't then you should burn them at the stake.
    • by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @02:32PM (#41112847) Journal
      IV is a company set up to exploit the horribly broken patent system to the max. They made their fortune not by merit of effort, but by gaming the system, causing untold economic damage in the process. So yes, they suck big time. And now they are changing their tune? That's a bit like praising a hardened crime boss for donating some of his ill gotten gains to the NY Philharmonic. A nice gesture, but in both cases it hardly means they are turning a new leaf.

      In the end, getting the patent system reformed is a lot better than hating IV. Fat chance of that happening, though.
  • Patent Troll (Score:5, Insightful)

    by introp ( 980163 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @02:20PM (#41112715)
    They're still what they were designed to be. They're just investing in P.R. now. Next.
  • You're only as good as you're last screw up.

    This is only asking the girl if she forgives her boyfriend for cheating, or worse.

  • by Khopesh ( 112447 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @02:22PM (#41112741) Homepage Journal

    Lots of companies struggle quite a bit to get proper branding and good press. It's really really hard, and often difficult for executives to understand the investment effort it requires. This leaves us in a pickle with Intellectual Ventures, because it's hard to even understand whether they are the "good guys" they purport to being.

    Maybe it would make sense for them to state some policies on what they will and will not pursue when it comes to their IP enforcement team (trolls). If they really want to push for innovation, they could make a statement like that they will never pursue use of their patented mechanisms in GPL-compatible software.

    I mention the GPL rather than OSI-approved because the GPL's clauses prevent closed-source derivatives, which ensures profitability of salable goods derived from such things. This model was quite successful (read: profitable) for Qt (before Nokia relicensed it LGPL).

    Permitting and encouraging Free Software stimulates innovation. It would likely also lead to derivative patents, which (assuming they share them appropriately) would be mutually beneficial to the F/OSS developer and to Intellectual Ventures.

    Of course, this is assuming software patents aren't stricken down, which would be better for everybody except Intellectual Ventures.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      They would never ever do this. This is just public relations bullshit.

  • To answer the question. No. You want goodwill? _Undo_ the damage that was done first. Release the patent war chest to the public domain. Stop the corporate shell game. Behave well for the next 5 or 10 years. Then we can perhaps change our opinion.
  • ...is still a troll.

    If Hitler contributed $5 to the Boy Scouts, is he still not a monster

    * Yes I invoke Godwin's law.

  • Not that Intellectual Ventures deserves it, but the concept of "Forgive and Forget" is ridiculous to me. Such concepts have an evolutionary advantage only if the minds using them can't strategize logically while assessing the full scope of past events. When I'm asked for forgiveness I always say: "There is no need. You can never undo the past, therefore I don't hold grudges." I can't forget, so it would be dishonest to the other or myself were I not to decide my future actions based on the whole of my

  • Long answer: Atone for your transgressions [imdb.com], then ask again.
  • Intellectual Ventures has done harm to a lot of people who are actually making things to benefit the public, and what do they have to show for it? Flashy tech demoes and dubious press releases.

    Want goodwill? Why not start by doing something good? You get goodwill when malaria rates are actually impacted by the fancy laser shows, when carbon emissions actually go down because of the nuclear reactors. Not before.

    It still wouldn't excuse all the damage caused by the patent trolling. But, hey, the robber barons

  • What goodwill would that be? They haven't actually DONE anything yet. They have made press releases that say they have plans to do things that may lead to things that could possibly result in something that's good (or at least not bad). Meanwhile, there's no reason to believe those things wouldn't have already happened if they had gotten out of the way.

  • The idea that "Intellectual Property" exists is illegal, plain and simple. It needs to be resolved in court (and should have been over 15 years ago), and the only reason it has not been there is because people are making a metric ass load of money suing each other. Courts make money, Law firms make money, and businesses that "win" make money. It's all ILLEGAL!

    Stop and think about how backwards, draconian, and medieval the concept is. Ideas are not free and only certain people can have them? Because you

    • Intellectual property is actually part of constitutional law, at least in the USA. That's the extreme opposite, by definition, of "illegal". Now, if you want to claim that it's immoral, outdated, invalid, unenforceable, too broad, broken, economically harmful, or should be prohibited on other constitutional grounds, go right ahead. Claiming that something which is established in the highest legal code of the nation is "illegal" just makes you look like an idiot.

      Now, I don't know for sure that you're an Amer

      • by s.petry ( 762400 )

        Absolutely false! "Intellectual Property" is not part of the Constitutional law. Intellectual property did not exist until Reagon passed the business process patent laws in the 1980s (I'm to lazy to go look for the exact date at the moment).

        Patent Law according to the Constitution deal with Physical invention only, and cites all of the criteria required for an invention to become patented. One of the requirements was that a working blue print must be provided, which you may be confusing with "IP" but it's

  • I'll agree to stop hating them for 2-4yrs if they produce a consumer version (less than $200) of their laser mosquito killer [slashdot.org]... every year they don't though my offer decreases in span of hate absolution by six months finally settling at a max of 2yrs. -j
  • Buy the public consciousness with a few baubles while continuing to drain away the vitality of the economy. They have learned much from the masters at the B & MGF.

Too much of everything is just enough. -- Bob Wier