When the Obama administration issued executive orders and proposals Tuesday to reform the U.S. patent system, it pointedly targeted “patent trolls.”
These entities — also called “patent assertion entities” or “patent monetization entities” — acquire patents and derive most of their revenue from turning those patents into money streams, whether through licensing deals or litigation.
One of the largest such entities that would likely be affected by the orders is based in Bellevue: Intellectual Ventures.
Founded in 2000 by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold, the company purchases patents from inventors, governments and universities; partners with inventors in getting patents; and files for patents for its own inventions.
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In its history, the company has acquired 70,000 patents, 40,000 of which are currently in what the company calls “active monetization programs” — either licensing deals for use of its patents, sales of the patents or joint ventures.
It says that it has generated $3 billion in cumulative licensing revenue and has paid $400 million to individual inventors.
“To my knowledge, Intellectual Ventures is the largest patent monetization entity in the country” in terms of patents held, said Robin Feldman, a law professor at University of California-Hastings, who specializes in patent law.
“Based on the patent holdings we could find, their portfolio would constitute the fifth-largest patent portfolio of any domestic U.S. company,” she said. “It’s roughly on the IBM level.”
On Wednesday, Intellectual Ventures declined interviews to speak about the president’s proposals but issued a statement saying: “Intellectual Ventures supports improvements to the patent system, and we supported the president when he introduced the American Invents Act” — the patent-reform legislation that became law in September 2011. The company said it encourages lawmakers to pursue the changes set forth in that law.
The statement also says Intellectual Ventures will need to review the details of the president’s proposal more closely. But the company also said that it thought one requirement to be “misguided.” That provision would require any party filing an infringement suit or sending a demand letter to file updated ownership information.
“We will of course comply with whatever regulations are enacted,” the company added.
Feldman, the UC-Hastings law professor, co-authored a 2012 study that found Intellectual Ventures had at least 1,200 shell or holding companies. She said the president’s proposal “has it right.”
In 2012, 58 percent of the patent lawsuits in the United States were filed by patent monetization entities, up from 24 percent in 2007, according to another study co-authored by Feldman.
“The patent system has resembled the Wild West with no sheriff in sight,” she said. “It’s a very complex problem that one will have to attack on many levels. The Obama administration plan has many of the key levels and more will be needed.”
One of the key proposals she likes: disclosure of who owns what patents. “Instead of academics poring over documents over four years, you should be able to know who owns what,” she said, referring to the years it took her and others to piece together from public records the patents that Intellectual Ventures owns.
Another paten assertion entity, Melville, N.Y.-based CopyTele, last month sued Microsoft, claiming certain technologies used in Skype infringed on some of its patents. It offered another perspective.
CopyTele CEO Robert Berman said: “I think the large companies have done a great job of creating what I call the patent troll myth by vilifying any company that comes after them with a patent lawsuit. Large companies have generated billions of dollars from asserting patents. When they do it, it’s OK, but when a small companies does it, they call you names.”
He says CopyTele has no problems with any executive orders or proposed legislation that calls for full disclosure on who owns what patents.
But, he said, “these disagreements are sometimes resolved via litigation. We don’t think it is practical to expect any type of executive order, or proposed legislation, to reduce the frequency of these types of disagreements.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @janettu.