Some see Nathan Myhrvold as a patent troll. He prefers to think of himself as an invention advocate.
The eccentric CEO of Intellectual Ventures addressed a wide range of topics during an interview at the GeekWire Summit 2016, including the investment world, Seattle’s reputation as a hub for biotech work and even his affinity for bread. But it is his thoughts on patents that have polarized the tech world. Intellectual Ventures has acquired more than 70,000 patents over its lifetime, and about 40,000 of those are active.
“The reason we like patents is it lets us get investments from companies under the idea of ‘hey, we’ll give it back and more.'”
Myhrvold questioned why people place so much value on operating businesses. “I don’t understand what is holy about having an operating business,” he said. Patents, he said, can help companies protect their products, and Intellectual Ventures is happy to work with companies in industries it isn’t involved in.
“If we own a patent … if we don’t make (a product) that means we make nothing, so we just try to license them to people or sell them to people or create companies around them,” Myhrvold said. “I think that is probably the friendliest use of patents.”
Myhrvold said Intellectual Ventures’ portfolio is a minuscule percentage of the 300,000 patents issued by the U.S. government annually, let alone the total number out there in the world. Many companies want to reform the patent system, Myhrvold said, but he doesn’t see a need for that, and he places a lot of value on patents. He called out big companies who have established their spot in the economic order and refuse to pay when they take advantage of the work and ideas of others.
“It almost sounds great; let’s get stuff for free,” he said. “But the problem with let’s get stuff for free is that you need to channel some money back to the folks who made it, or you won’t get as much of it made.”
Myhrvold says he is not concerned about what people think about him and his company — he snickered at a question about his perception in the tech world. Years ago, when Myhrvold worked at Microsoft, people criticized the company the same way they criticize Intellectual Ventures now. There will always be haters, and Myhrvold advised not to listen to them.
“People are not going to like what you do, and they are going to say bad things about you,” he said. “It’s a risk, and If you obsess about that too much you are never going to actually do anything that changes the world.”