Following up yesterday’s Patent discussion, I noticed that Nathan Myhrvold, who spent 14 years as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, had an Op-Ed piece in the WSJ yesterday on Patents. Myhrvold explodes the myths about the danger "patent trolls."
The section I had found most intriguing was this:
"Large tech companies do amass significant portfolios, but often not
directly related to their business model. If a rival company asserts a patent, a
company like this plays defense and threaten the asserter’s products right back.
While "defense" sounds benign, what it can mean in practice is having enough
patents that you can steal from anybody else with impunity. Between big
companies this works like a powerful shield, much like the doctrine of mutually
assured destruction with nukes. But the shield is impotent against universities,
companies without products or independent inventors. Owners of large defensive
portfolios hate that. (emphasis added)
That’s a pretty straight forward indictment by someone who knows, right from the heart of the tech industry.
In the 14 years I served as Microsoft’s first chief technology
officer, I saw this firsthand across the ranks of the computer industry. Tech
companies work extremely hard to use state-of-the-art technology, and either be
first to market or a fast follower — all else falls by the wayside. Big tech
companies are happy to hire the best people from rivals, universities and small
companies. Their employees attend conferences and study technical papers to stay
on the cutting edge. But they pretend that the patents on the technology in
those papers, or from universities or small companies, don’t exist. Many of the
largest tech companies have a standing policy that engineers are not allowed to
read patents or check whether their work infringes. Why bother to look, if you
know you’ll find lots of infringement? Besides the cost, it’s a distraction that
might hurt time to market. Their strategy is simple — damn the torpedoes, full
And the problem with this is . . .?
The trouble is, this cavalier attitude toward the law runs afoul
of the rights of legitimate patent holders and the big tech companies know this.
Rather than pay out a small fraction of their huge profits, they’re fighting a
campaign to weaken patent laws for the little guy. Some of this has taken place
in Congress under the banner of "patent reform." The eBay case aims to achieve
the same ends in the courts.
It’s hard to go to Congress or the courts and admit that you’re
one of the richest companies in the world, have huge profit margins and infringe
lots of valid patents held by honorable people . . . but you don’t want to pay
them. So naturally, these companies paint a different picture. They claim that
patents are low quality; yet there is no objective evidence of this. They claim
patent litigation is exploding; but the actual figures show just the opposite.
There are fewer patent lawsuits than copyright, trademark or other major forms
of commercial litigation. (emphasis added)
I think Myhrvold paints a pretty compelling picture — but then again, I am biased.
Inventors Have Rights, Too!
WSJ, March 30, 2006; Page A14