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Intellectual Ventures: A massive patent pyramid scheme?

Intellectual Ventures goes to new lows to raise money and keep would-be patent infringers on their toes.

Techdirt goes into depth on ex-Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures, adding a slew of new reasons to consider the patent-hoarding company the ultimate in creepiness. Intellectual Ventures is out on the fund-raising trail (again - it just raised $1 billion in late 2007), despite the fact that it appears to have demonstrated little ability to generate cash for anyone other than Myhrvold, even despite his amassed 20,000 patents.

I'm not a fan of any patent troll, but the manner in which Intellectual Ventures spends and raises money takes the practice to new lows. Indeed, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says it's not unreasonable to label Intellectual Ventures as a "giant pyramid scheme and a protection racket". Techdirt explains:

Another oddity is the vast amount of secrecy surrounding Intellectual Ventures. Anyone who sells a patent to the company or who licenses patents from the company are required to sign extensive non-disclosure agreements. When asked why, Myhrvold skirts the question by claiming many companies don't want to reveal what they're doing with IV. If that's true, though, why do they need NDAs in the first place? The company also uses an array of secret shell companies to go around buying patents, again raising questions about what it's doing. If the company is really so proud of its business model and doesn't think it's shameful, why is it hiding behind shell companies like garden variety patent hoarders. But, as we've learned, patent hoarders very much rely on secrecy to convince others to pay up.

Cisco and others have coughed up hundreds of millions of dollars to Intellectual Ventures, and have taken some steps to try to combat the company and its ilk. It's a nice gesture, but Myhrvold and his investors apparently bring too much cash to the table, earning Intellectual Ventures the dubious distinction of being the world's largest patent troll.

Myhrvold, of course, begs to differ, claiming that he's all about getting a fair return on innovation. Whatever. Most companies that innovate sell products. Intellectual Ventures sells the fear that one's home-grown products may earn a lawsuit.

Myhrvold? Well, according to the Wall Street Journal, his primary argument seems to be "everyone is doing it." I don't find this argument persuasive when my kids use it. I'd find it even less so if I discovered they were organizing protection rackets on the playground. It's shameful.