We have already talked about piracy and control of the internet in our previous posts. But there are many more fronts in this fight - here is a great piece from npr.org on "patent wars". Most of us have probably heard about one company suing another over pattens and intellectual property rights (for example, Kodak sued Apple and HTC over digital image patents, Motorola Sued Apple Over iPhone 4S and iCloud, and Intel bought RealNetworks' patents and video coding tech over the last month alone), but what does it all mean for us and why do patents inhibit progress, discovery and innovation?
When Patents Attack
The influential blog Techdirt regularly refers to Intellectual Ventures as a patent troll. IPWatchdog, an intellectual property site, called IV "patent troll public enemy #1." These blogs write about how Intellectual Ventures has amassed one of the largest patent portfolios in existence and is going around to technology companies demanding money to license these patents.
Patents are a big deal in the software industry right now. Lawsuits are proliferating. Big technology companies are spending billions of dollars to buy up huge patent portfolios in order to defend themselves. Computer programmers say patents are hindering innovation.
But people at companies that have been approached by Intellectual Ventures don't want to talk publicly.
"There is a lot of fear about Intellectual Ventures," says Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Twitter, among other companies. "You don't want to make yourself a target."
"I tried to put you in touch with other people in this community to talk to you about this and they almost uniformly said they couldn't talk to you," Sacca told us. "They were afraid to." IV has the power to "literally obliterate startups," Sacca says.
Imagine an inventor out there — someone with a brilliant idea, a breakthrough. This inventor has a patent, but companies are stealing his idea. And this inventor doesn't have the money or legal savvy to stop them. That's where IV comes in. It buys this inventor's patent, and it makes sure that companies who are using the idea pay for it.
When we asked for an example of an inventor in this situation, someone with a breakthrough, who wasn't getting paid for it, two separate people at IV pointed us to a guy named Chris Crawford.
So we went to talk to Chris Crawford. But that turned out to be harder than we thought — and it led us on a five month journey, where things did not quite fit the story Intellectual Ventures was telling.
When we followed up with IV to get Chris Crawford's contact info, the company told us it no longer owned Chris Crawford's patent. And Crawford probably wouldn't want to talk right now anyway, the company said, because he was in the middle of litigation.
We started digging around and found Chris Crawford in Clearwater, Florida. As predicted, he never responded to our many emails and phone calls. You'll never hear from him in this story. But we were able to locate Chris's patent — number 5771354.
He got it in 1998. And the way IV explained the patent to us, Chris Crawford invented something that we do all the time now: He figured out a way to upgrade the software on your home computer over the Internet. In other words, when you turn on your computer and a little box pops up and says, "Click here to upgrade to the newest version of iTunes," that was Chris Crawford's idea.
But when we looked at the patent, it seemed to claim a lot more than that. The name of the actual invention is "an online back-up system." The patent says this invention makes it possible to connect to an online service provider to do a bunch of stuff — software purchases, online rentals, data back ups, information storage. The patent makes it seem like Chris Crawford invented a lot of the most common things we do on the Internet.
We weren't sure what to make of all this, so we went to see David Martin, who runs a company called M-Cam. It's hired by governments, banks and business to assess patent quality, which the company does with a fancy piece of software. We asked Martin to assess Chris Crawford's patent.
At the same time Crawford's patent was being prosecuted, more than 5,000 other patents were issued for "the same thing," Martin says.
Crawford's patent was for "an online backup system." Another patent from the same time was for "efficiently backing up files using multiple computer systems." Yet another was for "mirroring data in a remote data storage system."
And then there were three different patents with three different patent numbers but that all had the same title: "System and method for backing up computer files over a wide area computer network."
Martin says about 30 percent of U.S. patents are essentially on things that have already been invented. In 2000, for example, the patent office granted a patent on making toast — patent number 6080436, "Bread Refreshing Method."
We also asked Rick Mc Leod, a patent lawyer and former software engineer, to evaluate Chris Crawford's patent.
"None of this was actually new," he told us.
Mc Leod looked to see if anyone else in the field was already doing the thing Chris Crawford claimed to invent in 1993, when he first filed his patent. Here's what he found:
There were institutions, both academic and businesses, that used computers in this way, and I think it's a very interesting collection of things that were well known in the 1980s, with the exception that it adds the word "Internet."Mc Leod said he didn't think the patent should have been issued in the first place.
For a long time, the patent office would have agreed with Rick Mc Leod. For a long time, the patent office was very reluctant to grant patents for software at all.
In the 1990s, the Federal courts stepped in and started chipping away at this interpretation. There was a couple big decisions, one in 1994 and another in 1998, which overturned the patent office completely.
A flood of software patents followed. A lot of people in Silicon valley wish that had never happened, including a very surprising group: computer programmers.
That same afternoon, we talked to a half dozen different software engineers. All of them hated the patent system, and half of them had patents in their names that they felt shouldn't have been granted. In polls, as many as 80 percent of software engineers say the patent system actually hinders innovation. It doesn't encourage them to come up with new ideas and create new products. It actually gets in their way.
Many patents are so broad, engineers say, that everyone's guilty of infringement. This causes huge problems for almost anyone trying to start or grow a business on the Internet.
"We're at a point in the state of intellectual property where existing patents probably cover every behavior that's happening on the Internet or our mobile phones today," says Chris Sacca, the venture capitalist. "[T]he average Silicon Valley start-up or even medium sized company, no matter how truly innovative they are, I have no doubt that aspects of what they're doing violate patents right now. And that's what's fundamentally broken about this system right now."
And, in fact, that's what's happening with Chris Crawford's patent. Intellectual Venures sold it to a company called Oasis research in June of 2010. Less than a month later, Oasis Research used the patent to sue over a dozen different tech companies, including Rackspace, GoDaddy, and AT&T.
We called Oasis several times, but no one ever answered the phone.
There was hardly any public information about Oasis Research. No way to know who owned it, or how many employees it had.
One of the few details that was available was an address: 104 E. Houston street, suite 190, Marshall, Texas.
So we went to Marshall. The door to Oasis's office was locked, and through the crack under the door we could see there were no lights were on inside.
It's kind of a cliche to knock on the door of the empty office. But we'd flown a long way. So we knocked. No one answered.
The office was in a corridor where all the other doors looked exactly the same —locked, nameplates over the door, no light coming out. It was a corridor of silent, empty offices with names like "Software Rights Archive," and "Bulletproof Technology of Texas."
It turns out a lot of those companies in that corridor, maybe every single one of them, is doing exactly what Oasis Research is doing. They appear to have no employees. They are not coming up with new inventions. The companies are in Marshall, Texas because they are filing lawsuits for patent infringement.
Patent lawsuits are big business in Marshall, which is part of the eastern district of Texas.
Many people say that juries in Marshall are friendly to patent owners trying to get a large verdict.
Oasis is a company with no operations, no products, and, as far as we can tell, no employees, that is using a very broad patent from 1998 to sue over a dozen companies.
All the big tech companies have started amassing troves of software patents — not to build anything, but to defend themselves. If a company's patent horde is big enough, it can essentially say to the world, "If you try to sue me with your patents, I'll sue you with mine."
It's mutually assured destruction. But instead of arsenals of nuclear weapons, it's arsenals of patents. And this was a problem Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold said he was trying to solve when he first started the company.
The pitch he heard was, basically, Intellectual Ventures helps defend against lawsuits. Intellectual Ventures has this horde of 35,000 patents — patents that, for a price, companies can use to defend themselves.
Technology companies pay Intellectual Ventures fees ranging "from tens of thousands to the millions and millions of dollars ... to buy themselves insurance that protects them from being sued by any harmful, malevolent outsiders," Sacca says.
There's an implication in IV's pitch, Sacca says: If you don't join us, who knows what'll happen?
He says it reminds him of "a mafia-style shakedown, where someone comes in the front door of your building and says, 'It would be a shame if this place burnt down. I know the neighborhood really well and I can make sure that doesn't happen.' "
One former IV patent was used by an NPE to sue 19 different companies, a broad assortment that included Dell, Abercrombie & Fitch, Visa, and UPS.
These companies all have websites where, when you scroll your mouse over certain sections, pop-up boxes appear. The NPE said, "We have the patent on that." Which would make pretty much the entire Internet guilty of infringing the patent.
In early July, the bankrupt tech company Nortel put its 6,000 patents up for auction as part of a liquidation. A bidding war broke out among Silicon Valley powerhouses. Google said it wanted the patents purely to defend against lawsuits and it was willing to spend over $3 billion to get them. That wasn't enough, though.
The portfolio eventually sold to Apple and a consortium of other tech companies including Microsoft and Ericsson. The price tag: $4.5 billion dollars. Five times the opening bid. More than double what most people involved were expecting. The largest patent auction in history.
That's $4.5 billion on patents that these companies almost certainly don't want for their technical secrets. That $4.5 billion won't build anything new, won't bring new products to the shelves, won't open up new factories that can hire people who need jobs. That's $4.5 billion dollars that adds to the price of every product these companies sell you. That's $4.5 billion dollars buying arms for an ongoing patent war.
The big companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft — will probably survive. The likely casualties are the companies out there now that no one's ever heard of that could one day take their place.