Patent Bridge is Falling Down
Technology industry heavyweights are banding together to form a new group called the Allied Security Trust. Members include Google (GOOG), Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). This alliance will buy up patents in the marketplace to preempt “patent trolls” from acquiring these patents in order to extract royalties from Allied Security Trust members.
Patents are notoriously difficult to value but it is clear that patents are becoming a viable asset class in themselves. Taking the cue from many other asset classes, could there be a way to “securitize” a portfolio of assets? This could be a fun and challenging opportunity to address. One approach is Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, a “venture fund” that invests in patents by acquiring those invented by others and developing some internally. There are many in the technology industry who fear Intellectual Ventures will evolve into the best funded and organized patent troll.
Below is an essay I wrote for an investment newsletter published in February 2007 distributed to high net worth clients.
Patent Bridge is Falling Down
Horror of horrors! We almost lost service for our Blackberry communication devices early last year. Also known as Crackberries for their users’ incessant finger-pounding of emails during company meetings, on the subway, and even on vacations, a patent infringement lawsuit filed against parent company Research In Motion (RIMM), threatened to sever the umbilical cord between the gadgets and their addicted users. NTP, Inc., a patent holding company, claimed that RIM infringed NTP’s wireless email patents. Legions of squinty-eyed telecommuters were relieved when RIM finally settled with NTP by paying an extortionary sum of over $600 million.
The Blackberry episode underscores the growing importance of an emergent business model. Disdainfully described as “patent trolls” by detractors, patent holding companies assemble portfolios of patents and wait for other companies to develop infringing products. Profits are then won in the courts and not in the arena of market competition. This form of intellectual blackmail has the potential of drastically altering the economic landscape and the development of innovative new products.
Innovation is the Holy Grail. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen assured us of that universal truth with the publication of a couple of business bestsellers. Large corporations pursue innovation with a newfound zealousness. However, the editors of this publication submit that the innovator’s dilemma is no longer about large corporations’ inability to recognize and take advantage of disruptive technology; it is now about navigating the field of patent landmines.
Who takes the risk? Innovation is inherently a risky endeavor. Impactful advances in technology seldom occur at low cost. Invention, experimentation, testing, and prototyping can require large sums of capital. Furthermore, product evangelism often dwarfs the cost of research and development. Thus, the founding fathers created a patent system to reward the risk taker and incentivize risky behavior resulting in benefits to society in the form of improved goods. They must now be spinning in their graves. Patent trolls are, in essence, excellent risk arbitrageurs, because they have found a way to extract profit without undertaking the bulk of the risk. In the case of NTP v. RIM, although Research In Motion incurred the cost of developing the Blackberry device and bringing it to market, the patent troll almost succeeded in removing a winning product from the marketplace. Who loses? Ultimately, the consumer.
How does one spot a patent troll? Like the monsters of childhood tales, they hide and wait under a bridge until someone attempts to cross. Trolls then exact a toll from the weary traveler for use of the bridge. Only in the real world, the bridge or asset was built or developed by the traveler! Patent trolls are, in the words of the legal cognoscenti, “nonpracticing” patent holders. They have no intention of ever developing and commercializing their patents.
“But we are all patent trolls!” Panglossian defenders of the current patent system point to the huge patent portfolios of large corporations like General Electric (GE), International Business Machines (IBM), Intel Corporation (INTC), and even mundane consumer goods powerhouse Procter & Gamble (PG). In this world of limited resources and talent scarcity, even the most imposing corporate behemoths can ill afford to commercialize all their patents. Yet when the blue chips’ patents are infringed, they pursue legal recourse as vigorously as any litigant. Defenders of the status quo place the burden of diligence on manufacturers. All who aspire to make the next iPod (AAPL), Blackberry, Viagra (PFE), or toaster oven must search the United States Patent and Trademark Office archives for all prior art – just as it has always worked for the last two centuries. They have a point. If manufacturers are not thorough with their homework, why shouldn’t they be sued?
The problem is not whether large or small inventors are practicing or not. The editors submit that the problem is what we call the Goldilocks Paradox. Currently, too many overly broad patents are being awarded. When that occurs, it becomes very difficult to innovate around such widely defined intellectual property. When patents are too narrowly defined, it becomes very easy for competition to design around them.
“Yum yum, these patents are not too broad and not too narrow, they’re just right!” To get to this happy equilibrium, we humbly suggest a remedy. To curb trolling behavior, set a time horizon for making infringement claims. The deliberate strategy employed by patent trolls of waiting for another company to develop a market for a product to then sue for damages is diametrically opposite of the approach taken by most large corporations armed to the teeth with attorneys. After a certain amount of time, claims will either have no merit or will win reduced compensation. We believe this would put a significant chill on trolling behavior and allow everyone to get on with the business of making our lives better.
For all the Blackberry users out there, cling tightly to your beloved devices. On May 1, 2006, Research In Motion was sued by another patent troll, Visto. Ah, as Candide implied, “All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.”