Snapshot of US patent landscape: Intellectual Venture’s Shell Companies

A while ago, I came across a Malcolm Gladwell article on insight and innovation, which mentioned a company called Intellectual Ventures.

In 1999, 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. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights—that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights—to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies.

Intellectual Ventures sounded like a company of the new millennium: first-rate minds brought together, given free reign over where they were going. Jump-starting innovation. Leading the way to the bright technological future.

It turns out, IV is more like an arch-villain’s lab. Its main business model is essentially patent trolling, and thanks to the complexities of the modern world, it does so through shell companies.

For years, IV itself liked to say that it wasn’t involved in any patent litigation directly (that changed not so long ago), but we had seen some IV patents showing up from some small patent trolls, where it was impossible to determine who actually controlled the patent or the lawsuits. However, at times, other companies have argued that the shell lawsuits were really IV in disguise. (Techdirt: Intellectual Ventures: Don’t Mind Our 2000 Shell Companies, That’s Totally Normal)

There has been some speculation as to how many shell companies IV had. Well, PlainSite has dug through the data from the USPTO and compiled a list of companies with ties to Intellectual Ventures.

We combed through 15GB of this data and linked up every patent assignment with the PlainSite entity, law firm and attorney databases to create an improved version of the USPTO assignment database, which we’ve made available for free. Then we tagged all of the companies that have links to attorneys and mailing addresses frequently used by Intellectual Ventures. The resulting list is about 2,000 companies.

IV, of course, sees nothing wrong with the practice, but one is to wonder whether a company doing honest R&D would really need 2000 aliases.

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