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Intellectual Ventures on This American Life (npr.org)
178 points by jacobjulius on July 23, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

This is all basically a "stupid tax". We Americans are too stupid to engineer a reasonable patent system, and the price we pay is cramped innovation and increased costs. The Myhrvold guy is a parasite, and so are the source of his $5 billion capital and the ridiculous state of patent law that enables his behavior. The patents being cranked out by the PTO look like they were written by a group of 5 year olds with a Markov text generator.

Also this was a great piece of journalism.

>Also this was a great piece of journalism.

I started listening to the This American Life podcast after I heard a piece on the financial crisis. Their reporting of business matters is truly extraordinary. Their stories often have a narrative that I think it is possible to disagree with, but the sheer depth with which they tackle a subject is amazing, and incredibly informative.

Their non-business related shows are great, too, but very different. If you liked this piece, check out some of their archived shows. You'll learn a lot.


If you weren't aware, the This American Life business team spun off to form Planet Money, which is also an amazing show:


Why is it so expensive to question patent's validity? It feels that if it was cheaper to issue challenges to obvious patents, it would be better for the whole ecosystem.

Tim O'Reilly launched BountyQuest a while ago http://oreilly.com/pub/a/oreilly/ask_tim/2003/bountyquest_10... but that died off, not sure a for-profit organization can be in the business of challenging dubious patents for a long time.

I'd say it's another instance of being too stupid to pay for it.

You can regulate (I'm not saying it's easy, but you can) or you can give the store away.

Public investment in effectively policing IP might well mean more effective assignment and more limited scope. Leaving the landscape more open for innovation. In my interpretation, leaving more in the hands of the public good.

And, if you truly believe in that "guy with a good idea and good execution", in the touchstone "entrepreneur", then providing and environment where s/he is not immediately threatened by crushing financial (not technical, but financial -- rights purchased, lawyers purchased, laws purchased) concerns would seem paramount.

People aren't willing to pay the price and effort of maintaining the common good, and then they wonder why their ideology predicated upon it does not work.

I'd say it's another instance of being too stupid to pay for it.

The power of monopoly for 15 years? Such a potent legal bludgeon needs to be administered very carefully. Instead of being designed carefully and insightfully, the current patent system is designed to be as bureaucratically obfuscated as possible. It just looks like a bunch of complicated stuff is happening, but what's really happening is that lawyers are being paid tons to shoot meaningless arcane gibberish back and forth.

It would be like licensing canisters of nerve poison, with the licensing process designed by a paranoid schizophrenic.

I'm not sure I understand what you are saying in your response. My point was that we have a system where examiners are overwhelmed and underpowered, and more recently, incentivised to "grant anything that moves".

We have a system that is fundamentally designed to reward the people who pay. Significant filing and legal resource fees. Prosecution fees, to issuance and then in subsequent disputes. Increasingly, you can't even "enter the game" without deep pockets. (Except, I guess, to "sell" to one or another IP troll. Essentially making you their agent, rather than the reverse.) Putting us on the road to a class-based system with regard to patent (and perhaps IP more generally) rights.

Decide that intellectual property falls out of common property. It is a licensed, limited monopoly. Regulate it as such. Review it closely, and grant it with suspicion and due investigation.

How are you going to define such a system? Not on the basis of fee-based service and the primacy of private ownership (ueber alles).

Monitor how things proceed, and when they start to get out of kilter, adjust. IP is not some sacrosanct right; it's a tool. Use it effectively.

But... large portions of the populace continues to be sold propaganda to the contrary. Too stupid to pay the price it takes to effectively manage the IP commons.

(A corresponding point in all this: People "lament the off-shoring of jobs", but buy all their cr-p from overseas producers who benefit from flaunting the IP rights that elevate domestic producers' costs. Too stupid to see the hypocrisy in this, not to mention the self-destructive nature of the behavior.

One might argue that they are circumventing a broken rights system. In which case, why do they continue to subject domestic producers (and so, generalized, themselves and their own employment) to it?

Or, one might argue that those IP rights are a benefit to society. In which case, why are they circumventing them in their own actions?

For myself, I'd say that some rights are legitimate -- meaning beneficial to society -- and others not. By ignoring the distinction, we reduce individual choices to immediate self-motivation and short term benefit, but abdicate any coherent policy necessary to long term benefit.

We'll never have a perfect system. But it could be made less FUBAR than it is. If not, we really are screwed.)

I'm not sure I understand what you are saying in your response.

You're probably trying to find something that's not there. Just read what's there. I'm not disagreeing with you.

We have a system that is fundamentally designed to reward the people who pay.

Yes, people pay for mumbo jumbo, then they get to do stuff in the legal system. How about a system where we get results that aren't nonsense? We need to incentivize the patent office to avoid being full of shit.

In an email to us, Peter Detkin called the comparison to the mafia "ridiculous and offensive." Detkin wrote:

"We're a disruptive company that's providing a way for patent-holders to recognize value that wasn't available before we came on the scene, and we are making a big impact on the market. That obviously makes people uncomfortable. But no amount of name-calling changes the fact that ideas have value."

NO, ideas by themselves are meaningless. Take it from a guy who loves coming up with new ideas for products and businesses, but isn't so good at the execution part (that's me).

Ideas have value only when they are part of a shipping product. The more popular that product, the more valuable the idea behind it becomes. The sad truth is that right now there are a lot of patent holders who aren't even using most or all of their patents, and instead they just use them to make money off others or sue them.

If patents aren't completely abolished (by far the best outcome for the world and innovation), you should at least not be allowed to flaunt your patents unless they are already part of your shipping products. And even in that case, you should be allowed to license it for only a few short years, like 3-5 years - not decades.

And ideas should under no circumstance be patentable.

> NO, ideas by themselves are meaningless. Take it from a guy who loves coming up with new ideas but isn't so good at the execution part

Maybe off topic, but this reminded me of a certain statement about poetry, by the poet WH Auden:

     For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
     In the valley of its making where executives
     Would never want to tamper...

I'm really looking forward to this one, but I'd like to say something about this kind of quality reporting in general:

Being from germany This American Life was off my radar until about a year ago, but listening to just two episodes instantly got me hooked and turned this podcast into an essential weekly habit. This kind of investigative reporting and the ability to tell, structure and plot everyday life experiences are a pleasure to listen to.

The same applies to the lengthy frontpage reports of The New Yorker - turned me into a subscriber of the iPad edition. If print businesses follow this route of intensive and detailed reporting, there will be no need to compete with the often-complained-about online resources, which may be faster but often lack the detail and on site journalism a staff like The New Yorker's can pull off.

I also am a fan, but you are wrong about the New Yorker, and TAL being competitive. I too thought that such good news has to be worth a lot, buy as it turns out they don't make money.

The New Yorker is basically philanthropy. According to the comments of more then a few journalists, the guy who owns the new Yorker doesn't care if it makes money, or even if it looses some money because he just wants to be the guy that owns the New Yorker.

I think that what it comes down too is that not enough people like news like this.

Another problem is that its hard for something like TAL to do all the news. There needs to be more local, and regional shows like TAL to get useful coverage.

That being said I am glad to know that so many people like good journalism, it means at least there is a hope that it will pull through.

> The New Yorker is basically philanthropy. According to the comments of more then a few journalists, the guy who owns the new Yorker doesn't care if it makes money, or even if it looses some money because he just wants to be the guy that owns the New Yorker.

That sounds more like Harper's, which is run by John R. MacArthur, the same family as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which gives MacArthur "Genius" grants and is the "more just, peaceful, and verdant" sponsor of NPR.

The New Yorker is owned by Conde Nast, which is most decidedly in favor of making money. Because it's part of a large portfolio of Magazines (Wired, Vogue, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Bon Appetit, on and on), there's little data about its individual profitability.

This is just fantastic- great reporting, and in my opinion it would elicit the appropriate degree of moral outrage in most reasonable listeners. I hope this kind of exposure is at least somewhat helpful at raising people's awareness outside of the software industry echo chamber.

These guys are nothing less than pirates. If they were so true about helping the patent owners, they would simply have an agreement with them to be the middle man and take a percentage of the revenue generated. But no, they actually buy the patent (and I am sure for pennies on the dollar) and license it to more companies for top dollars or sue them out of existence.

They cold call patent owners actually.

If you missed it and don't want to wait until sunday to download, go to another TAL episode page like http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/218/a..., open yr browser's javascript console (cmnd-option-j) and type playMe('441&promo=0')

wow, thanks! very clever. this type of thing probably works in a lot of places.

To be fair to Nathan Myhrvold, Intellectual Ventures is not his only interest. He is an intellectual goad.

Read this epic thread about him sponsoring a trip to elBulli for FatGuy, founder of eGullet


From the thread (Nathan's comments). Seems like a real asshole:


OK, so now I have to keep FG honest by relating two of his classic comments during the meal.

We were all mesmerized by the black truffle series. After the braised/raw endive dish (which arrive in transparent packages "en papillote"), there was a pause in the conversation. FG broke the silence with a profound observation "I think that the black truffle really helped that dish".

Reallly? The endive wasn't enough by itself? The rest of us didn't know whether to laugh, or quietly tell the server to stop pouring him wine.

But the classic of the whole evening is when we went back out on the terrace to have petit fours. Thierry Rataureau turnes to FG and says "So, Steven what do you think?" It was Thierry's first time at elBulli and he was contemplating the meal.

FG, who had noticed how little light there was on the terrace turned and said "I think I'm going to need flash".

That's the kind of deep culinary insight that we've all come to expect from him

A great time was had by all of it - it was a great group, and a great meal. It is also the end of a era, which made us all a bit sad, but also happy that we had been there to partake in it.

When I spent an hour reading (and salivating on) the whole thread, the context I got was Nathan ribbing his friend Steven A. Shaw a.k.a. "Fat Guy" by highlighting a few instances where he did not appear to be the fearless founder of one of the best food/cooking communities on the web.

"Ferran Adria is going to ascend to the ultimate expression of the culinary arts: he's going to become a food blogger. Actually he's going to become more like Nathan M.: head of a kitchen lab and creator of dishes, without a restaurant."


Relatedly, Myhrvold did actually make a really genuinely huge contribution to cuisine with his gigantic ubercookbook Modernist Cuisine, and so it makes me sad that he turns out to be a bloodsucking asshole by trade.

He's done a lot of great things in software as well, but that doesn't change the fact that his stance on patents is wrong and economically destructive.

Didn't Myrhrvold have a spectacular amount of money prior to founding IV? "Complete T-Rex skeletons in my foyer" money?

I don't like IV, but I feel like Myrhrvold probably does believe in what he's doing.

He may actually believe he's doing the world a great service, but surely you don't believe that just because someone is fantastically wealthy relative to the average person means they automatically stop doing things for the money?

At some point it becomes more like watching your Hacker News karma go up than it has to do with having a real impact in your life, but that doesn't mean the wealthy stop caring about it.

In other words... well, sure Myrhvold is wealthy... but he's not Helú, Gates or Buffet wealthy. He's just a chump compared to those guys.

Yes, he was billionaire-ish from Microsoft, and I imagine he does believe in what he's doing, so I guess he's not intentionally a bloodsucking asshole, but I don't know that that makes it that much better.

I was looking forward to this, based on the number of people here talking about the great reporting, but now that I'm listening on the radio I'm a bit disappointed. They are talking about patents overlapping other patents, but it is clear that they are just going by the titles of the patents and maybe a quick glance at the abstract.

Unfortunately, the title and abstract just tell you the general area of the patent, not the details, and it is the details that matter. You'd expect to see many patents with similar titles, and even similar abstracts, even though the patents might be covering things that are very very different.

Finally listening to it myself. I think they're talking about titles because that's the easiest way to get the ideas across to the listeners. It's not just the reporters who think that all of these patents are for the same thing, it's the guy who analyzes such things as his job.

When I first read the title I thoght it said "Intellectual Vultures"

I get so enraged when hearing these stories. It is no different from extortion, and now I hear that you can be sued for libel for calling it that? I wrote a blog post the last time there was an HN thread on this calling to action: http://enja.org/2011/07/09/the-software-patent-racket-what-d...

I'd love feedback and ideas

A slanted journalistic piece that doesn't tell the other side-- in particular, the inventor. Instead of finding one, the article says they found it extremely difficult. (Surely, the news broadcasters can find some inventor's view.) Where's the other side of the story?

The only ones it found were inventors who said they couldn't understand the dumb legal language of the claims, and thus, said all was stupid. Obviously, someone is stupid, and the news team could have found many inventors who did understand the language. Why is such slanted journalistic article seen as having truthful?

If the other side isn't presented, I'm always suspicious whether the story has integrity rather than sensationalism.

Good stuff. I had some long-form thoughts so I posted a full-length reply on my blog:


According to IV:

> 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.

What a bunch of bullshit. They're not helping any inventors. Their overly broad "orange juice" patents make it impossible to do anything without violating one of them.

I've always felt the words "intellectual" and "property" should never be that close together for any reason. (With apologies to Jerry Seinfeld)

The economic theory behind IP law is to legally imbue intellectual works with those attributes of real goods so as to make them have the properties that are necessary to have the free market deal with them, so calling it "intellectual property" is sensible and accurate.

So is this airing tomorrow? If so, I can't wait. I won't read it now though. I'm all about the podcasts.

A slanted journalistic piece that doesn't tell the other side-- in particular, the inventor. Instead of finding one, the article says they can't. (Surely, the news broadcasters can find some inventor's view.) Where's the other side of the story?

If the other side isn't presented, I'm always suspicious whether the story has integrity.

I think the inventors can't speak about their dealings with IV because of contractual reasons. Or maybe they're just ashamed to have sold their patents to a troll.

Great piece.

Wow... when I saw the headline, I naturally expected yet another puff piece extolling the genius of Nathan Myhrvold to all who will listen. NPR gets some serious kudos for proving me wrong.

This American Life is an amazing program. And so is Planet Money! Planet Money people doing a piece for This American Life is amazing-squared.

public broadcasting has been consistently excellent from the beginning. to me it feels more in tune with the hacker mentality than any other source of media, so i'm glad to see it on HN.

Planet Money is actually a co-production of This American Life and NPR, and there's often a lot of overlap (for example, they devoted a full TAL episode to Toxie, a story that was developed over several episodes of the Planet Money podcast).

So it's more like amazing^1.5 ?

It can still be amazing squared :). This American Life is actually one of my favorite things. I always look forward to new episodes, and love going through old ones in their iPhone app.

Some programs are better than others.

The Planet Money / This American Life team brings tears to my eyes they're so good. While I won't say they don't have any sacred cows (I don't know that they do or don't), they're certainly not afraid of skewering many articles of faith.

I've also been a long, long time listener of Terry Gross's "Fresh Air", and it seems to me that it improved markedly during the aughts by tackling serious political issues. I don't know if that change is my perception or the program (my first memories are of its coverage of the Clarance Thomas Supreme Court nomination).

On The Media is also usually pretty good, though it can be a little uneven.

I have to say that the anchor programs -- Morning Edition / ATC, and Talk of the Nation -- have lost much of their edge. ToTN particularly seems to play to drama rather than fundamentals (its Political Junkie segment especially, starting with the intro soundbites all of which are sensationalistic).

APM's financial programs (Marketplace Radio / Marketplace Money) wouldn't know sound financial advice and perspective if it gave them a black eye. Internet sources rule here, largely on the sacred cow basis (and TAL/PM blow them out of the water).

But overall, it's among the better of the large broadcast organizations.

Freakonomics had another entertaining podcast related to Nathan, namely his work on "molecular gastronomy" and comparing to traditional cooking. http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/01/27/freakonomics-radio-wa...

If you read the full text Oasis Research has the same exact Texas office address as Lodsys and Oasis Research has Certificate of Interested parties listing IV as getting a portion of Oasis Research revenue.

If Lodsys is the patent trollester collecting IV revenue through a Certificate of Interested parties back deal with IV that might explain how methodical Apple is moving to decimate Lodsys/IV..

sounds like we are being had by IV...whereas they license a patent than turn around sell patent to a party where they take aback-end deal percentage of revenue and that new company than sues for patent infringement the same companies that licensed said patent with IV..for me that is cleary somewhat fraud..

What's fraudulent about that?

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