Thursday, April 28, 2005

INTERVIEW WITH NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Nathan Myhrvold, founder of Microsoft Research and former chief technical officer, is also the the founder of Intellectual Ventures, a somewhat mysterious and controversial start-up.

Combining the disciplines of a venture capital firm, a think tank and an intellectual-property firm, the company gathers well-known inventors for "invention sessions," hoping the get-togethers will one day result in hugely profitable patents. Investors are said to include Microsoft, Google and Intel. Myhrvold sees the company as a forum where brilliant minds will have the room and luxury to simply create.

But critics take a dimmer view of the venture, claiming it will inevitably encourage patent litigation and, paradoxically, discourage innovation. Nevertheless, Intellectual Ventures is likely to become one of the central figures in the ongoing patent debate.

CNET has an interesting interview with Myhrvold that discusses the decline in invention, his company, and why some people get bent out of shape when the conversation turns to intellectual property.

One interesting comment brought up by Myhrvold deals with the level of passion stirred up by patents:

One thing that intrigues me about the whole patent area is the emotion it engenders. If you bring up patents to some people, they really get wound up.

Myhrvold: Yeah, it's very funny to me, and it's a cultural thing in that it depends on what industry you're from. In the medical device industry nobody gets worked up.


Myhrvold: Try it. Call somebody in Medtronics or U.S. Surgical or anyone of a hundred little start-ups that do medical devices. People generally don't have any problem with the patent system [BLOGGER NOTE: I sure hope this comment was made prior to the case ivolving Gary Michelson and the $1Bil settlement]. They may argue about a specific patent being valid or not. The same runs true with biotech. Go talk to biotech guys and ask them if they want the patent system abolished. They say, "My God!"

The one exception--and frankly, if you look at the world overall, it's one tiny blip of an exception, although it's one where I set my career--is in the computer industry. In computing, there has been a strong sense that patents were not the fundamental secret of success of most of the big companies. Oracle is very up front about them, saying they copied the SQL idea from IBM. And certainly Apple and Microsoft both learned a lot from Xerox.

Another interesting comment deals with the increase in patent litigation:

What do you think of the complaints of how patent litigation is hurting companies? Some days it sounds like the trumped-up malpractice crisis of the '80s.

Myhrvold: Well, this is even stranger. We actually did a study on this. The overall number of lawsuits for patents is growing, but so is the overall number of patents. So explain that to me. If you then look at it and ask, what fraction of those lawsuits are due to companies that have no products, the IP-only companies--it's about 2 percent. If you look at it and say what fraction of lawsuits are due to large technology companies, it's about 2 percent.

Definitely worth a read.

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