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May 30, 2012 at 10:47 AM

D10: Nathan Myhrvold defends patent hoarding

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — Former Microsoft research chief Nathan Myhrvold defended the huge business he’s built collecting and enforcing patents.

Myhrvold was interviewed at the All Things D conference by co-host Walt Mossberg.

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Mossberg grilled Myhrvold (right) over whether aggressive patent licensing is stifling innovation and whether the current system is broken.

“If the people who create ultimately don’t get paid that’s a problem,” Myhrvold said.

Myhrvold leads Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue-based company backed by Bill Gates that collects patents, licenses them to companies and invests in companies developing new technologies. It has raised more than $5 billion from Gates and other investors and has made undisclosed billions in licensing fees.

Intellectual Ventures also employs more than 100 people who invent new technologies. That’s spawned companies developing a new kind of nuclear reactor and new broadband antennas.

Myhrvold said two Intellectual Ventures researchers will win the Nobel Prize some day.

He characterized the current “patent wars” in the tech industry as just the latest way that intensely competitive tech companies are doing business, similar to the way Apple sued Microsoft in the 1990s over Windows and other companies later sought antitrust enforcement of Microsoft.

“Any time there is a strategic tool that someone can use to try to get ahead in this fierce clash of the titans battle, you see — back in the day it was Apple and Microsoft or Netscape and Microsoft … Lotus Development and Microsoft,” he said.

“Those big battles now, if you look at the version of those today, those involve companies and patents. I didn’t create that situation but it was clear as day to me it was going to happen.”

Mossberg said “it’s not competition in the market” to compete via administrative bodies and judges, with companies “saying you sort this out, I’m going to slug this guy down and you’re going to help me do it.”

“Only if one guy copied the other guy,” Myhrvold said.

An audience member sparred with Myhrvold over whether the threat of patent enforcement by ventures such as his stifles innovation, including the development of low-margin vaccines that could help people in developing countries. Myhrvold replied that Intellectual Ventures does extensive research into global health.

Mossberg asked about the animosity toward Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures.

Myhvold noted that the biggest tech companies are now doing the same thing he’s doing by acquiring large patent portfolios, and said he has a thick skin.

“It’s fine if you want to have animosity toward me, go ahead,” he said. “I never was a popular kid in class. I’m not going to be a popular kid in this class. If I want popularlity I go to a chef’s convention. I won two James Beard awards two weeks ago, dammit.”

“I think what I’m doing is really really good for innovation in the long run,” he said.

“But obviously,” Mossberg said, “not everyone agrees.”

Comments | Topics: all things d, Billionaire techies, D conference

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