Cheers went up loudly around Silicon Valley today, at least in the C-suites of the large incumbent companies. Why? Because now the President, who has been a heavy fund raiser here in the Valley, is promising to institute reforms of the nation’s intellectual property regime that favor those incumbent companies and potentially harm inventors and entrepreneurs. This follows a recent shift in our patent regime, also heavily tipped in favor of large well established technology companies, that favors those who are the first to file for a patent not the first to invent a new technology.
For years, law firms, academics and lobbyists working for big technology companies like Apple, HP and Intel have been pushing for these kinds of reforms. But the individual entrepreneurs and inventors who have historically been “present at the creation” of these now giant companies are not able to make their voices heard in the same way. They are widely dispersed, often young and without the huge resources of the incumbents.
Many new inventions threaten the existing invested capital of the incumbents and they are in fact worried about the impact they could have on their existing business models. In fact, many new ideas are unable to find investors or are swept up into the giant portfolios that the big companies now assemble and are never heard from again.
That’s why a young Bill Gates in the 1970’s made a passionate defense in favor of the IP rights of writers of software code for startups like his, but years later Gates started attacking the granting of patents to code writers. As Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation discovered:
“Here’s what Bill Gates told Microsoft employees in 1991: ‘If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today…A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.'”
Of course, Microsoft was fast becoming one of those giants and now it uses that power to back groups like Intellectual Ventures which is scooping up thousands of patents and providing expensive mass licenses to firms that want a moat around their business model. Valley VC’s recently established a firm called RPX that does much the same thing.
It is no surprise then that an older successful Bill Gates was once asked what kept him awake at night and he answered – to an audience in Palo Alto – the fear that two guys in a garage somewhere nearby were developing a new way of doing things that would threaten his business model. Ironically, at that very moment, in the late 90s, Sergey Brin and Larry Page had started a little company called Google, first in their dorm rooms at Stanford and then in a nearby garage.
In other words, when the IP system helped a young Gates he tried to enforce it, when it began to threaten him he found ways to change it. Gates is not alone in this, of course, as Apple and Intel and Cisco and HP and ATT and IBM all do the same thing. But do we ever stop to ask, where will the new forms of these companies come from?
One of the targets of the patent reform movement are companies derisively labelled “trolls.” In the pure form these are companies formed solely to buy up orphaned technology that may have value because it is possible there are infringers out there in the world of existing companies. Thus, these companies provide a valuable secondary market for the exploitation of technology that inventors can no longer afford to pursue. Our entire economy is built on similar kinds of secondary markets, for IP and for financial instruments and for entertainment products, heck, even for used cars.
The advantage of these markets is that inventors know there is at least some value they can get out of their invention even if they cannot build an entire company around it. The existence of this market also signals to incumbent players that they have to play by the rules. I spent eight years on the board of directors of a technology company whose original inventions were trampled on by big players, like AMD, Apple and Intel. That destroyed the company and only an aggressive licensing and litigation strategy helped recover some value for our shareholders.
That (eventually successful) strategy was long, complex, expensive and unpredictable. Now the new reforms will make defending the original ideas of our entrepreneurs and inventors even more difficult.
The bottom line is that in many ways we are all “trolls” now because the pace of innovation is so intense that every inventor and firm must have an aggressive IP strategy, both defensive and offensive.
And yet when firms like the one I helped out as a lawyer and a board member try to defend their own technology, they are dismissed as “trolls.” When firms like Acacia Research emerge to provide a secondary market for IP that might otherwise be grabbed without compensation by larger players they are dismissed as trolls.
Meanwhile, it is the large incumbent and increasingly less innovative companies that are using their resources to capture the political process in order to defend their slowing business models.
We will all pay a price in a weaker culture of innovation.