Alex Goldman is a producer for On the Media. One time he got run over by a car.
Q&A: Alex Blumberg
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 - 12:19 PM
On the most recent episode of This American Life, NPR's Laura Sydell and Planet Money co-host and This American Life producer Alex Blumberg spent the entire hour exploring the lucrative practice of "patent trolling." While On the Media has discussed "copyright trolling," a much less successful analogue of patent trolling, we were fascinated by this story, and how this practice could potentially be stifling the creation of new technologies. We asked Alex a couple questions about what patent trolling is, and the difficulties of reporting a story that had the potential to be...well, incredibly boring.
Q: We’ve talked about copyright and patent trolling on our show before, but can you briefly explain what a “patent troll” is?
A: The definition given to us by Peter Detkin, the guy who coined the term, was: a patent of dubious quality used to sue a lot of companies broadly across the industry by a non practicing entity in the hopes of extracting a nuisance value settlement. So a patent troll is a person or company that doesn’t actually make anything for commercial use who uses a patent of dubious quality just to sue - not to actually stop the person from using the patented thing - but simply to get people to settle.
Q: Were you worried in reporting this that it would be boring because it was about patents? When did you realize that this was hopefully going to be a compelling story?
A: I was worried. I’m always worried. And as always happens I wasn’t sure it was going to be compelling until we were finally done and we had the final version. The thing that made the story work was that we had this one guy, Chris Crawford. He was the example Intellectual Ventures gave us of a person they were helping. But once we started looking into his patents it took us on this weird journey. That journey introduced us to all of these issues that we touched on the story.
Q: This episode ended up taking several months to report. Why did it take so long?
A: Partly it’s just the boring answer that Laura and I were really busy and had our regular jobs. Mine at Planet Money and This American Life and hers as a correspondent for NPR. But also the story required a lot of digging. It’s complicated. Nobody would talk to us on the phone. For example, no one at Oasis Research would return our calls so we had to go to Marshall, Texas. The lawyer from Oasis wouldn’t return our calls so we had to track him down at a conference in San Francisco. We had to fly out to Intellectual Ventures twice.
Basically, every single fact in the story took a lot of digging to uncover. And then questions like - when did Intellectual Ventures buy a patent? When did they sell a patent? When was Oasis Research formed? That information is out there but it’s hard to find.
Q: Since the story has aired, have you gotten any response from Silicon Valley or the patent lawyer community?
A: Yes. There’s been an overwhelmingly favorable response. Lots of people from Silicon Valley have said that much of our story rang true for them. Many people have told us they have patents they don’t understand. Many people have told us that patent litigation has affected their business. And then there have been a few negative responses from intellectual property lawyers saying that our story was unbalanced or an over simplification.
Q: After reporting the story, does the way to fix this seem obvious? What would be your first move if you were made patent reform czar?
A: To resign. I wouldn’t want that job and I don’t want to pretend to have that job for the purposes of this q and a. There’s a range of opinion about what should be done. One thing people say is you could reduce the term of a patent’s life. Right now it’s 20 years. Some people want to get rid of software patents all together and just protect software with a copyright. Some people think there should be an easier way to challenge the validity of a patent that doesn’t require a lot of court costs. As I said, there’s a range of ideas but pretty much everybody agrees something should be done. Even Nathan Mhyrvold told us that the system could be improved.
Q: In your reporting, did you see a light at the end of the tunnel? Did you see any evidence of any sort of attempt at a reform to the patent system?
A: Just recently a patent reform bill passed the House and the Senate. It hasn’t been signed into law yet though.
(Listen to the entire episode "When Patents Attack!" by clicking this link.)