When NPR Attacks Patents: Stories are Long on Drama, Short on Truth

“When Patents Attack… Part II!” revisits old ground about bad IP actors by relying on half-truths and high drama.

“This American Life,” an entertaining weekly NPR news feature, cannot resist using ill-defined “trolls” as a basis to attack the patent system. A more accurate title might be “This American Knife: When Public Radio Attacks Patents!”

Back in July of 2011 “This American Life” (TAL) spent an hour vilifying patent holders who do not practice their inventions, and attempting to convince listeners that they had uncovered a third-party IP monetization scheme that is destroying innovation. The story was largely focused on Intellectual Ventures, the largest patent buyer. “When Patents Attack!” relies on half-truths, questionable sources and a lot theatrics, which makes for good radio, but shoddy journalism.

On May 31 TAL broadcasted When Patents Attack…, Part Two! This time around, the host, Ira Glass, said, TAL’s reporters were urged on by the logo-v5challenge to complete the difficult investigation they had begun two years earlier. Sadly, this piece is should be required listening, like the previous one, especially for those who want to better understand how patent misinformation gets spread around.

The dramatic conclusion to Laura and Alex’s search for information about Intellectual Ventures, and the inventor they claimed they were helping, Chris Crawford. The story turns out to be different from the one Intellectual Ventures originally told.

Separating the Real Story from the Drama

I would rather not go toe-to-toe refuting each claim in the story. However, I will say that presenting facts and partial-facts with insufficient context is extremely damaging to establishing the truth about the real story: patent theft in the U.S.

If you cannot listen to the entire broadcast, please at least catch to the last five minutes. At approximately 50:30 (you can use the play bar to go right there) there is a statement delivered at the Electronic Frontier Foundation meeting in San Francisco by a young medical device inventor who is moved to tears, literally, because he believes that the big bad trolls are inevitably going to destroy his hard work establishing a potentially life-saving invention.

The young inventor explains how he looked up some patents in the heart device area he was working in, saw how many inventions there are and how broadly they are defined and precisely their claims are worded, and determined that he was doomed from the start. Since he believed that he had no chance he refused to develop his brilliant idea and allowed his hard work to be taken away [presumably by trolls, as opposed to medical device manufacturers].

“When Patent Attack…, Part Two!” may be more scurrilous and insulting than Part One. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, while far from perfect, has done a generally good job of identifying and codifying inventions. Due to the USPTO’s lack of resources, in relatively rare instances given the millions of issued patents, it is sometimes necessary for the courts to decide what is novel and unobvious, who is an infringer, and how much must be paid in damages. This system may be inefficient, and benefit some businesses more than others, but it is generally fair, even if the enforcer is not practicing an invention or selling products.

Occasionally, it is necessary for the courts to determine what is valid or infringed, but typically it is left to posterity to determine what is “truly” innovative. This TAL story implies that innovation can be readily identified and classified, belittling those inventions that do not fit its definition.

“Too Many” Patents

The patent attorney introduced in Part Two who claims that there are “too many patents” confuses the issue. (Are there too many parcels or real estate? Perhaps he means that they are too easily granted?) Who is in the position to judge that the owner of an invention that meets the appropriate tests of patentability should not receive one because it lacks sufficient meaning? “When Patents Attack, Parts I and II” plays directly into the hands of businesses that would benefit from a weaker patent system with fewer patents that can potentially be used to undermine their leadership. The exclusivity afforded to patents can provide inventors, SMEs, and in some cases investors, the leverage to challenge traditions and provide the kind of positive destruction that stimulates competition and creates jobs. Heck, Apple, Microsoft, Disney, Google, H-P, Xerox and Amazon all were founded in garages or dorm rooms. America needs to encourage other companies to follow in their footsteps.

* * *

“When Patents Attack, Parts I and II” does little to enlighten listeners about how the patent system really works. It does, however, make it easier for companies to justify practicing others’ inventions, while laughing all the way to the bank. God bless (this) American life.

Image source: thisamericanlife.org

About Bruce Berman

Independent IP observer, adviser and author.

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