Nathan Myhrvold is a smart guy. I haven’t met him, but everyone tells me that, so I’ll take it as given. I have a hunch he’s 1980s Microsoft-smart, which is to say he’s about as much fun to be with as a talking Wikipedia page, but hey, some people like that.
Nevertheless, I don’t normally care what over-monied ex-Microsoft executives do with their time. They can save the planet, collect guitars, write cookbooks, etc. Myhrvold, however, is now regularly writing columns in praise of the glories of the U.S. patent system, about how technology companies once ignored patents, and how it’s now coming back to bite them. Myhrvold, a principal in a patent holding company, somehow gets treated deferentially, in a way that, say, a hedge fund manager talking about his largest position wouldn’t be.
His arguments veer from hysterical, to unsupportable, and back again. Paragraphs like the following from his latest column will serve to show his full-of-shit-ishness:
The biggest companies, which have always touted their brilliant innovations to justify the billions of dollars in stock options they pay their executives, have been in the odd position of attacking the patent system and publicly deprecating the innovations of others. Patents attempt to create a level playing field, but the last thing an 800-pound gorilla of a company wants is a fair fight. After succeeding in part by stealing other people’s inventions, they decry any inventors who have the temerity to ask for a share of the returns.
Let’s parse that paragraph’s claims:
- That technology companies promote their innovations mostly to justify compensation is shaky populism at best. Where is the evidence? And it is amusingly tone-deaf for Myhrvold — a man who made billions from Microsoft’s innovations (sic.) — to take this tack.
- There is no inconsistency in promoting innovation while attacking the software patent system. Most software companies, large and small, think the patent system is an obstacle to innovation given the prevalence of nonsensical blocking patents and patent trolls. I would hope that they attack it.
- Far from trying to create a level playing field, the history of patents in software is one of blocking, extorting and general innovation-slowing gamesmanship. To pretend otherwise is silly, ahistorical, and willfully blinkered.
- Suggesting that large technology companies succeed “in large part” by stealing other people’s inventions is a wild-eyed claim. Is there something in Microsoft’s history he’d like to share with us? This rapidly become unsupportable nonsense at best, and conspiracy theorizing at worst.
- Arguing that blackmailers (those fine inventors with “temerity”) with nonsensical patents should be paid off is not an argument. It is simply talking his own book.
What we have here, in short, is this: Myhrvold is happy to see patent portfolios like Nortel’s being bid up because it increases his own company’s value with its thousands of patents. This is an arms-dealer applauding the outbreak of hostilities, meanwhile pointing to people making war-like faces on the sidelines. (Whoa, watch out for those guys!) This is far, far from a disinterested observer of a fundamentally broken U.S. software patent system. Let’s end the deference.