The Giants Among Us

  • January 9, 2012
  • Stan. Tech. L. Rev. 1
Tom Ewing
Robin Feldman

The patent world is quietly undergoing a change of seismic proportions. In a few short years, a handful of entities have amassed vast treasuries of patents on an unprecedented scale. To give some sense of the magnitude of this change, our research shows that in a little more than five years, the most massive of these has accumulated 30,000-60,000 patents worldwide, which would make it the 5th largest patent portfolio of any domestic US company and the 15th largest of any company in the world.

Although size is important in understanding the nature of the shift, size alone is not the issue. It is also the method of organization and the types of activities that are causing a paradigm shift in the world of patents and innovation. These entities, which we call mass aggregators, do not engage in the manufacturing of products nor do they conduct much research. Rather, they pursue other goals of interest to their founders and investors. Non-practicing entities have been around the patent world for some time, and in the past, they have fallen into two broad categories. The first category includes universities and research laboratories, which tend to have scholars engaged in basic research and license out inventions rather than manufacturing products on their own. The second category includes individuals or small groups who purchase patents to assert them against existing, successful products. Those in the second category have been described colloquially as “trolls,” which appears to be a reference to the children’s tale of the three billy goats who must pay a toll to the troll waiting under the bridge if they wish to pass. Troll activity is generally reviled by operating companies as falling somewhere between extortion and a drag on innovation. In particular, many believe that patent trolls often extract a disproportionate return, far beyond the value that their patented invention adds to the commercial product, if it adds at all. The new mass aggregator, however, is an entirely different beast. To begin with, funding sources for mass aggregators include some very successful and respectable organizations, including manufacturing companies such as Apple, eBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, and Sony, as well as academic institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame, and other entities such as the World Bank and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Nations such as China, France, South Korea, and Taiwan even have their own mass aggregators to varying degrees. Moreover, the acquisition appetites and patent supply sources are quite interesting. Mass aggregators may have portfolios that range across vastly different areas of innovation from computers to telecommunications to biomedicine to nanotechnology. In some of the acquisition activity, mass aggregators purchase large chunks, and even the majority, of an operating company’s patents and patent applications. They typically pay cash up front, as well as a share of any future profits generated from asserting the patents against anyone other than the selling manufacturer. Mass aggregators have engaged in other unusual acquisition approaches as well, including purportedly purchasing the rights to all future inventions by researchers at universities in developing countries. Other acquisition approaches purportedly include targeted purchases of patents that are of particular interest to the mass aggregators’ investors. The types of returns promised to investors and the types of benefits offered to participants are also quite different from garden-variety non-practicing entities, as are some of the tactics used in organizing the entities and in asserting the patents. Finally, the scale itself is simply mind-boggling. Mass aggregators operate on a scale and at a level of sophistication and complexity that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. They have taken the prototype strategies pioneered by a prior generation of non-practicing entities and changed them into some of the cleverest strategies yet seen in the intellectual property rights field. The goal of this article is to shed some light on mass aggregators. We hope to provide some understanding of the nature of the change, to analyze its economics and implications, and to offer some normative considerations. In the descriptive section, we focus on the oldest and largest of the mass aggregators, Intellectual Ventures, which has gone to great lengths to maintain secrecy. Working from public sources and investing thousands of hours of research, we offer a detailed picture of the entity, tracing through approximately 1300 shell companies and thousands of patents. The section also describes in brief form several other mass aggregators, including ones that are public companies.

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