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Patent activists: Let's light up Intellectual Ventures' IP portfolio

A new crowdsourced project aims to unearth and make public the details of Intellectual Ventures' patent portfolio, something Nathan Myhrvold's firm has worked hard to keep under wraps.

IV's headquarters in Bellvue, Wash.
IV's headquarters in Bellevue, Wash.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

One of Intellectual Ventures' biggest secrets is under attack.

The Bellevue, Wash.-based patent firm and invention lab, co-founded in 2000 by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myrhvold, owns more than 40,000 patents or pending patents and keeps a tight lid on its collection. So tight, in fact, that you can't see it unless you partner with the company and sign a non-disclosure agreement.

The end result can be that companies with products that might infringe on one of those patents, or that simply want to license one of IV's patents, don't exactly know what they're up against, says IP Checkups. The patent analytics firm today has launched a project called "Case IV thicket" that aims to unearth the entire portfolio.

"The whole purpose of the patent system is to share this information with the general public to make them aware of new innovations, and encourage companies to license and trade patents to develop innovative products," IP Checkups chief executive Matt Rappaport said in a statement. "When you hide patent ownership through obscure shell companies as Intellectual Ventures does, you negate the entire purpose of the patent system -- the development of an open marketplace of ideas."

In a statement, Intellectual Ventures pointed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database as a place to find patents:

Intellectual Ventures' patent holdings have been the source of fascination for many years. We and many other patent holders believe that patents should be respected regardless of who owns them. Those interested in viewing granted patents and patent applications can simply search the USPTO's public database. Ultimately, we hope to see the day when invention rights are respected whether they are owned by individuals, universities, Fortune 500 companies, start-ups or invention investment firms like Intellectual Ventures.

Intellectual Ventures has pulled in more than $2 billion from licensing its technologies, and says it has paid out $400 million to inventors. However, it also has a reputation as something of a bully that leverages its massive holdings to pressure other companies to buy patent licenses.

To create the database, IP Checkups needs to raise at least $80,000 in the next 44 days through online fundraising tool Indiegogo. The bulk of that funding, according to the publicly-listed budget, goes to "sleuthing" out shell companies, with another $30,000 spent on licensed access to corporate research databases. In an interview with CNET, IP Checkups' Rappaport said that he was confident that the project would receive funding, and even surpass its goal.

This is not the first effort to detail the insides of IV's patent trove. A study from the Stanford Technology Law Review, published last year (PDF), attempted to break down the world of "mass aggregators," or groups with often-massive collections of patents and other intellectual property.

That study highlighted the common use of shell companies, or companies with seemingly no connection to the parent company, that makes it difficult to figure out who owns what. It found 1,276 shell companies that held about 8,000 U.S. patents and 3,000 patent applications.

In an interview with CNET earlier this year, IV president Adriane Brown responded to questions about the use of such companies by saying they were mostly used in the early years of the company's existence, to keep competitors from poaching patents and ideas. Brown, however, mostly stayed mum about IV's use of such companies now.

Updated at 10:40 a.m. PT with comment from Intellectual Ventures and additional background.