Required Reading on Innovation and Patents

FACT:  If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s tremendous books (“The Tipping Point” and “Blink“), then you probably read the New Yorker magazine just to get his articles.  He has a new piece this week, “In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas are Rare?” in which he describes the phenomenally appealing work of the legendary Nathan Myhrvold and his current gig running “Intellectual Ventures,” often mistaken for a VC firm.  Gladwell recounts the facts that Myhrvold “graduated from high school at fourteen. He started Microsoft’s research division, leaving, in 1999, with hundreds of millions.”  It is what he’s done since then that grabs the mind, particularly if you’re interested in invention and innovation:

When Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures [and] hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights… Myhrvold wanted to make insights—to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies.”

The bottom line can be charted in part by the number of patents filed.  Gladwell reports Myhrvold’s original expectation that his unique firm would only file a hundred patents a year. Instead, “currently it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas.”  Oh, and “It just licensed off a cluster of its patents, for eighty million dollars.”


ANALYSIS: I’ve been spending some time lately thinking about the judicial branch, the third branch of government, the one which gets least attention in day to day news coverage but nevertheless exercises profound influence over everyday life and even technology.  There are a few areas in that realm where our Microsoft Institute is sketching out some potentially innovative ideas. In some ways, up to now the court system is the area of government least transformed by information technology, even though ironically IT innovation relies on court protection.

Patents fascinate me – reading them, counting them (as I watch others do each year), thinking about their implications.  They serve fundamentally as markers of the reach of innovation.  They don’t always pan out, of course, but as Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” 

The Supreme Court of the United States is Patent Heaven, where patents under examination go for final disposition – the good survive, the bad fall away.  And the “patent bar” of specialist IP lawyers is a particularly chatty bunch, several of them producing good blogs – my current favorite is Patent Baristas, written primarily by Steven Albainy-Jenel, of Frost Brown Todd in Cincinnati.  Check out the blogroll there for other good IP and patent-law blogs.

Just last week, Albainy-Jenel wrote a book review (of “Patent Appeals: The Elements of Effective Advocacy in the Federal Circuit” by Mark Simon Davies, Oxford University Press) discussing the Court’s increasingly active role in “policing” IP law. If you think a book on patent law would be dry reading, then you’re missing the fact that “intellectual” property law is the field most relished by a Court packed with nine hyper-intellectuals just smacking their lips at the thought of a juicy patent fight. 

Consider these quotes from last year, by two of the most brilliant men in Washington as they ridiculed a federal “test” proposed by the lower Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, on their way to overturning its ruling unanimously. The case was KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc. of 2007, widely seen as one of the most important patent cases in decades:

Chief Justice Roberts: “It adds a layer of Federal Circuit jargon that lawyers can then bandy back and forth… it seems to me that it’s worse than meaningless.”

Justice Scalia: “I agree with the Chief Justice. It is misleading to say that the whole world is embraced within these three nouns, teaching, suggestion, or motivation, and then you define teaching, suggestion, or motivation to mean anything that renders it nonobvious. This is gobbledygook. It really is, it’s irrational.”

In spite of legal wrangles over past patents, there’s fresh evidence that technical innovation continues unabated.  Yesterday I read news accounts of the announcement of winners in last week’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (also covered in the Atlanta paper and on a WIRED blog).  More than 1,550 young scientists participated, representing 51 countries. The winning projects are described in this Intel press release.  May all the bright young people who participated be future patent-holders.

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4 Responses

  1. I think Myhrvold is on to something. Something that any business that wants to be successful needs to imitate as closely as possible. If I had a few hundred million dollars, I’d love to build my own private think tank and pursue my hobbies just like him!


  2. You said it! Something to aspire to…

    thanks for the comment – lewis


  3. Intellictual Ventures seems to have taken the high road in fostering innovation and making IP widely available at a reasonable cost. I think their approach will stimulate new business ventures and reduce corporate expenditures on litigation. I am a Registered Patent Agent 62224. Your readers may also be interested in checking out the IP Watchdog Web site at It provides a free, reliable and easily understandable resource on intellectual property law and related topics.


  4. Maurice – thanks! Excellent resource you suggested. -lewis


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