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Posted: January 06, 2014

Down with patent trolls!

There's an easy way to get rid of them

Brad Feld

I’ve been railing about the evils of software patents – how they stifle and create a massive tax on innovation – since I wrote my first post about it in 2006, Abolish Software Patents.

Seven years ago, this was a borderline heretical point of view since it was widely asserted that VCs believed you should patent everything to protect your intellectual property. Of course, this was nonsense, and the historical myths surrounding intellectual property, especially the importance and validity of software and business methods, have now been exploded.

My post from 2006 lays out my point of view clearly. If you don’t want to read it, here are a few paragraphs.

“I personally think software patents are an abomination. My simple suggestion on the panel was to simply abolish them entirely. There was a lot of discussion around patent reform and whether we should consider having different patent rules for different industries. We all agreed this was impossible – it was already hard enough to manage a single standard in the U.S. – even if we could get all the various lobbyists to shut up for a while and let the government figure out a set of rules. However, everyone agreed that the fundamental notion of a patent – that the invention needed to be novel and non-obvious – was at the root of the problem in software.

I’ve skimmed hundreds of software patents in the last decade (and have read a number of them in detail.) I’ve been involved in four patent lawsuits and a number of “threats” by other parties. I’ve had many patents granted to companies I’ve been an investor in. I’ve been involved in patent discussions in every M&A transaction I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve spent more time than I care to on conference calls with lawyers talking about patent issues. I’ve always wanted to take a shower after I finished thinking about, discussing or deciding how to deal with something with regard to a software patent.”

Companies I’ve been involved in have now been on the receiving end of around 100 patent threats or suits, almost all from patent trolls who like to masquerade behind names like non-practicing entities (NPEs) and patent assertion entities (PAEs). We have fought many of them and had a number of patents ultimately invalidated.

The cost of time and energy is ridiculous, but being extorted by someone asserting a software patent for something irrelevant to one’s business, something completely obvious that shouldn’t have been patented in the first place, or something that isn’t unique or novel in any way, is really offensive to me.

In 2009, I got to sit in and listen to the Supreme Court hear the oral arguments on Bilski. I was hopeful that this could be a defining case around business method and software patents, but the Supreme Court punted and just made things worse.

Now that the President and Congress have finally started to try to figure out how to address the issue of patent trolls, the Supreme Court has another shot at dealing with this once and for all.

I’m not longer optimistic about any of this and just expect I’ll have to live – and do business – under an ever-increasing mess of unclear legislation and litigation. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised this time around.

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. Prior to co-founding the Boulder-based Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship and writes widely read and well respected blogs at www.feld.com and www.askthevc.com. He holds bachelor's and master's of science degrees from from MIT. Contact him at brad@feld.com

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