The Patent Bubble and Its End (Jeffrey Tucker)
Monday February 4th, 2013
“Then they pop up and say, ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!’ Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.”
Those are the words of Newegg.com’s chief legal officer, Lee Cheng. He was speaking to Arstechnica.com following a landmark ruling that sided with a great business against a wicked patent troll company called Soverain.
What is a patent troll? It is a company that has acquired patents (usually through purchases on the open market) but does not use them for any productive purpose. Instead, it lives off looting good companies by blackmailing people. The trolls say, “Pay us now or get raked over the coals in court.”
Soverain is one such company. Most companies it has sued have paid the ransom. Soverain has collected untold hundreds of millions in fines from the likes of Bloomingdale’s, J.C. Penney, J. Crew, Victoria’s Secret, Amazon, and Nordstrom.
It sounds like a criminal operation worthy of the old world of, say, southern Italy (no offense, guys!). Indeed, but this is how it works in the U.S. these days. The looting is legal. The blackmail is approved. The graft is in the open. The expropriation operates under the cover of the law. The backup penalties are inflicted by the official courts.
To be sure, the trolls may not be as bad as conventional patent practice. At least the trolls don’t try to shut you down and cartelize the economy. They just want to get their beak wet. Once that happens, you are free to go about your business. This is one reason they have been so successful.
Soverain’s plan was to loot every online company in existence for a percentage of their revenue, citing the existence of just two patents. Thousands of companies have given in, causing an unnatural and even insane increase in the price of patent bundles. Free enterprise lives in fear.
Let me add a point that Stefan Molyneux made concerning this case. The large companies are annoyed by the patent-troll pests but not entirely unhappy with their activities. The large companies can afford to pay them off. Smaller companies cannot. In this way, the trolls serve to reduce competition.
[Stefan made his comments on an edition of Adam v. The Man, in which we were both guests. you can watch the entire show here.]
When Soverain came after Newegg’s online shopping cart demanding $34 million, a lower court decided against Newegg, but only imposed a fine of $2.5 million. Newegg examined the opinion and found enough holes in the case to appeal. It was a gutsy decision, given the trends. But as Cheng told Ars Technica:
“We basically took a look at this situation and said, ‘This is bull****.’ We saw that if we paid off this patent holder, we’d have to pay off every patent holder this same amount. This is the first case we took all the way to trial. And now nobody has to pay Soverain jack squat for these patents.” It’s true. The case not only shuts down the Soverain racket. It might have dealt a devastating blow to the whole patent hysteria and the vicious trolling that has fueled it all along.
And truly, the patent mania has become crazy. No one 10 years ago would have imagined that it would go this far.
“It’s a sign of something gone awry, not a healthy market,” attorney Neil Wilkof told Gigaom.com, with reference to the utterly insane amounts that well-heeled tech giants have been paying for patents. “I think we’re in a patent bubble in a very specific industry. It’s a distorted market and misallocation of resources.”
[Note: This entire racket is anticipated and debunked in the pioneering work on the topic. The new edition of Stephan Kinsella's Against Intellectual Property is now available for free to Club members.]
Earlier this year, Google shelled out $12.5 billion for the acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Facebook threw down $550 million for AOL’s patents. Apple and Google spent more last year on patent purchases and litigation than on actual research and development. The smartphone industry coughed up $20 billion last year on the patent racket. A lawsuit last year against Samsung awarded Apple $1 billion in a ridiculous infringement case.
These are astronomical numbers — figures that would have been inconceivable in the past. Everyone seems to agree that the system is radically broken. What people don’t always understand is that every penny of this is unnecessary and pointless. This market is a creation of legislation, and nothing more. The companies aren’t really buying anything but the right to produce and the right not to be sued, and that is not always secure.
Let’s back up. Why are there markets in anything at all? They exist because goods have to be allocated some way. There are not enough cars, carrots, and coffee to meet all existing conceivable demand. We can fight over them or find ways to cooperate through trade. Prices are a way to settle the struggle over goods that people grow or make, or services people provide, in a peaceful way. They allow people to engage to their mutual benefit, rather than club or shoot each other.
But what is being exchanged in the patent market? It’s not real goods or services. These are government creations of a bureaucracy — an exclusive right to make something. They are tickets that make production legal. If you own one, there is no broad market for it. It has only a handful of possible buyers, and the price of your good is based entirely on how much money you think you can extract from deep pockets. Sometimes, you actually force people to buy with the threat that you will sue if they don’t.
That’s not how normal markets operate. There was a time when patents didn’t even apply to software at all. The whole industry was built by sharing ideas and the spirit of old-fashioned competition. Companies would work together when it was to their mutual advantage and hoard competitive reasons when it was not. It seemed to work fine, until legislation intervened.
Today the entire fake market for patents is sustained by the perception that courts will favor the patent holders over the victims. The Newegg case changes that perception, which is why it has been the most closely watched case in the industry. This might signal the end of the reign of terror, at least one form of it.
But, you say, don’t creators deserve compensation? My answer: If they create something people are willing to pay for, great. But that’s not what’s happening. Soverain’s bread and butter was a handful of patents that had been on the open market, changing hands through three different companies over the course of 10 years, until they landed in the laps of some extremely unscrupulous wheeler-dealers.
In other words, patents these days have little to nothing to do with the creators — any more than mortgage-backed securities at the height of the boom had anything to do with the initial lender and its risk assessments. Once a patent is issued — and they are not automatically valid, but rather have to be tested in litigation — it enters into the market and can land anywhere. The idea that the patent has anything to do with inspiring innovation is total myth. It is all about establishing and protecting monopolistic weapons with which to beat people.
Many people have been hoping for patent reform. It probably won’t happen and might not even need to happen. If this case is as significant as tech observers say, a sizeable portion of this fake industry could be smashed via a dramatic price deflation. When something is no longer worth much, people stop wanting it.
Patents date from a time when a great industrial innovation made the headlines just because it was so rare. That’s not our world. Government has no business allocating and centrally planning ideas. Here’s to Newegg: Take a bow. Someone had the guts to say no. This time, for once, it worked.
Jeffrey Tucker is the publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, the Primus inter pares of the Laissez Faire Club, and the author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo, It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes, and A Beautiful Anarchy: How to Build Your Own Civilization in the Digital Age, among thousands of articles. Click to sign up for his free daily letter. Email him: [email protected] | Facebook | Twitter | Google