I was amazed to realise that the recent dog fight to buy Nortel, was really driven by the patents they had, rather than the value of the operational parts of the business.
After an opener bid by Google of $900mill, Nortel eventually was sold to a consortium that included Apple, Microsoft, (ironic partnership that) Ericcson and Sony for $4.5 billion, outbidding Google and Intel who had teamed up. The winners will share the patent bank of Nortel, some 30,000 of them covering all sorts of electronic ideas and gizmos. The Nortel sale then prompted the sale of Motorola to Google for 12.5 billion, as it put a value on their patent bank.
A new business has emerged from the development of the last 20 years, “patent troll” someone who buys up patents, and then launches litigation to extract royalties. Given the hazy boundaries of patents in the digital space, the ideas that patent applications address in the first instance often have potential applications in applications never dreamed of in the original form. Enter the patent troll, who chases the royalities, potentially ensuring innovation driven startups may make never get off the ground, as the threat of litigation is enough to smother the commercialisation process.
The giant of Patent Trolls appears to be Intellectual Ventures, started by Nathan Myhrvold, a brilliant bloke whose contribution to Microsoft was a key to their success, and who since has made heaps by effectively greenmailing tech companies with lawsuits and threats suits for patent infringement.
Long intro. This cost of insuring against greenmailing ends up in the cost of the stuff we buy, and virtually all of it is just risk management, avoiding the risk of litigation that adds no value to the innovation process at all. The patent process was developed to protect ideas in a simpler time, and seems to me to have lived beyond its useful life, at least in the digital arena. Ideas scale, they get better with use, and the evolution of patent trolling acts as a disincentive to use, a tax.