Why Silicon Valley likes Obama’s patent troll offensive

June 18, 2013

Technology companies may have backed the President’s executive actions to curb patent trolling. But my first thought when reading about the move was that Obama was merely paying lip service to the technology community over an issue that cuts to the heart of innovation and job creation. Obama had failed, I thought, to go far enough. And watching White House press secretary Jay Carney hold up a picture of a crossed-out toy troll in a superhero outfit under the slogan “innovation, not litigation” didn’t help lead me to believe otherwise.

White House press secretary Jay Carney holds up a folder with an image of a troll and the words "innovation, not litigation" during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
White House press secretary Jay Carney holds up a folder with an image of a troll and the words “innovation, not litigation” during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Granted, I say this as someone who believes software patents should be abolished given that technology often becomes obsolete in the time it takes to be granted a patent. Nevertheless, I was convinced that others in the Valley would agree with me.

This wasn’t enough, they’d tell me. The administration had to — and could — do more.

I started with someone who doesn’t have proverbial skin in the patent game: my colleague at Stanford Law School, Mark Lemley. He’s among those at the forefront of the patent reform debate, and he fully disagreed with me. In an e-mail exchange, he told me the administration’s move was far more than lip service. Then he went on, praising the White House and writing that it had “done a good job of targeting real problems without attacking the patent system as a whole.” So, I turned to the Valley’s elite to find a like-minded spirit, focusing on the venture capitalists.

To a man (yes, women are underrepresented in the VC world), they agreed with Lemley. Several voiced their support in e-mails to me over the course of the past two weeks.

Brad Feld thought the action was very helpful and evidenced that the administration “clearly understands the patent troll issue and is doing what it can to address the situation without having Congress have to change the law.” But Feld, an Obama supporter, still worried that Congress might block the president’s “excellent recommendations.”

Netscape co-founder-gone-VC Marc Andreesen, who has gone back and forth between supporting Obama and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told me it “looks like a positive step.” Another Valley VC heavyweight, Vinod Khosla, a registered Republican, described the administration’s actions in one word: “good”, while angel investor Ron Conway, a Republican once upon a time who switched to undeclared, offered even more enthusiastic support, saying the move was “very good” and that it “sends [a] great [message].” Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, who has backed candidates on both sides of the aisle, was the most enthusiastic, writing, “this is phenomenal for our industry, and is a game changer for all of us.”

Venture capitalists, the people who invest in fledgling tech companies that stand to be trolled, tend to be pretty quiet on this issue when they’re not being vague. Few dare to speak up against patent trolling firms openly because they fear companies in their portfolio will be spotlighted and slapped with lawsuits. Intellectual Ventures (IV) is among the most feared companies when it comes to patent litigation, though the company has repeatedly pushed back against the “patent troll” label. Instead IV describes itself as “a privately-held invention capital company,” though that’s not how I or many others in the Valley would describe them. According to its Web site, the company has raised $6 billion to date and gained more than $3 billion in cumulative licensing revenues. Its investors include leading tech companies such as Apple, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco, several venture funds, and universities such as Brown, Cornell, Northwestern and Stanford.

It’s little wonder a cheer is going up from the Valley for Obama’s proposals. So, let’s hope that Congress does as the President asked. If he won’t get rid of patents entirely in this fast-paced world of innovation, the least he can do is put the patent trolls out of business.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.
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