Radio listeners around the country were given an inside look at the dark underbelly of the U.S. patent system this week in a fascinating and thorough report on This American Life, with new details from its investigation of Intellectual Ventures, the company run by former Microsoft technology chief Nathan Myhrvold.
For the other side of the story, here’s a video from Microsoft featuring a developer and researcher getting all warm-and-fuzzy about their first patents, and talking about the benefits of intellectual property for inventors and the industry at large.
[Editor's Note: Microsoft originally released this video in April in conjunction with World IP Day. An update to the video, made by the company today in YouTube, inadvertently made it appear that it was newly published. This post has been updated to correct the timing.]
That video may leave the impression that Microsoft thinks everything about patents is just hunky-dory, but the Redmond company has actually called for reforms and more transparency in the patent system, including an end to the practice of patent owners shielding their true identities through the use of shell companies — one of the tactics by Intellectual Ventures that was highlighted in the radio piece this weekend.
The radio show offered a much different perspective from inventors, re-airing an interview with one who called his own patent a bunch of “mumbo jumbo” concocted by lawyers.
Microsoft wasn’t directly scrutinized in the latest radio piece, except for a mention of the connection to Myhrvold, who continues to collaborate with Bill Gates on a variety of projects.
The revelations in the piece included details about Intellectual Ventures receiving 90 percent of the ongoing profits from a patent that it sold to a mysterious company called Oasis Research — which then used the patent to sue a large group of tech companies, reaching sizable settlements with many of them.
The origins of that patent were also called into question, as the “inventor” who sold it to IV was shown to have filed for the patent without including the former business partners who should have been credited with the idea, according to the piece. A jury invalidated the patent, but at least one company that settled told This American Life’s Alex Blumberg and NPR’s Laura Sydell that it is still making payments.
Intellectual Ventures, which quickly objected to the original This American Life story back in 2011, says it’s reviewing the updated piece, but it has yet to release a public statement following this weekend’s broadcast.
Editor’s Note: Intellectual Ventures was one of the category sponsors for the recent GeekWire Awards.