Malcom Gladwell’s piece in the latest New Yorker, on Nathan Myhrvold and his company, Intellectual Ventures, is a rollicking good read. But once you’ve read it, it’s worth sobering yourself down a bit with John Gapper. For while
Myhrvold and his merry crew of idea merchants might seem to be a wonderful thing, there are also reasons to be a bit suspicious of them.
Gladwell skips over the main criticism of Intellectual Ventures – that it is a patent troll that operates by coming up with ideas and then registering them to block others in the field. He reports the following fact:
The original expectation was that IV would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas.
Well, yes but a track record in filing patents is not equivalent to being inventive. One thing I found unconvincing about Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, was that she constantly cited how many patents were being filed under her leadership as if that proved something.
One of the weaknesses of the print media broadly speaking is that it’s pretty bad at reporting on issues of intellectual-property rights run amok. Every so often you’ll get a lawsuit like the one between NTP and Research in Motion, and right-thinking people will shudder at what the patent system has become. But most of the time, patents are unthinkingly accepted as a Good Thing, and the more patents the better. Gladwell’s article is just another one of many articles along such lines, even though it implicitly argues that patents shouldn’t be nearly as powerful as they are, because ideas are rarely original. If only he’d bothered to tease that idea out.