You might be asking, what is a patent troll? And, why would one write a cookbook? Both are good questions that I’ll answer here.  

The term “patent troll” is a not-sonice reference to a company that enforces patents, usually aggressively, with no intention of manufacturing, marketing, or using the patented invention. Simply put, the trolls purchase patents and then force alleged infringers, typically by threatening litigation, to license those patents from them. A more gentile term for patent trolls is “licensing firms.”  

While licensing firms have reputations for aggressive litigation with alleged infringers, the firm many consider the largest (in terms of its patent portfolio and leverage in the technology field), has rarely filed suit – until recently.

This past December, Intellectual Ventures, LLC, the secretive firm founded by Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft chief technology officer and cookbook author (I’m not kidding), and Edward Jung, former Microsoft chief architect, filed three lawsuits in federal court in Delaware. The suits seek unspecified damages from nine defendants. One of the suits names some of the biggest players in the security software field as defendants: Symantec, McAfee, Trend Micro, and Check Point Software Technologies, Ltd.  

Filing lawsuits is a departure from Intellectual Ventures’ historical strategy of convincing alleged infringers to enter into licensing deals or become investors in the firm. Intellectual Ventures has deals with some of the biggest names in the tech world, including Intel, Cisco Systems, and Google. Although the terms of the deals are confidential, licensees and investors typically pay Intellectual Ventures either an investment fee or royalties over time. In exchange, Intellectual Ventures promises not to sue for infringement of a specific patent or patents. As you might imagine, the fees and royalties can be substantial, sometimes reaching hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Intellectual Ventures is able to convince companies to enter into licensing agreements, in part, because of its stature among licensing firms. It claims to have raised more than $5 billion to amass a portfolio of 30,000 patents and patent applications. Along with Microsoft, Intel, and Google, its investors include eBay, SAP, Nvidia, and investment firms like Charles River Ventures. Of the 760 people it employs, half are either engineers or lawyers.  

Intellectual Ventures’ lawsuits were filed on the heals of a wave of suits filed by licensing firms in the past year. The flurry of litigation is fueling a debate at the intersection of technology and law about the patent system, in general, and the role of licensing firms within that system.

What’s more, the rise of licensing firms has spawned what some might call anti-patent trolls, reverse patent trolls, or patent angels. For a fee, companies like RPX Corporation, will buy potentially threatening patents and promise never to sue you over them. More about patent angels in the next issue of Lightswitch.  

Oh, I almost forgot about Myhrvold’s cookbook. Called Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, it’s the perfect gift for anyone that’s looking to spend more than $450 on a 50 lb., 2400 page, six-volume treatise that includes recipes requiring water baths, homogenizers, and centrifuges as well as ingredients such as hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes. He may be a troll, but he’s also an avant-garde epicurean.