Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold's Sleeping Patent Troll, Wakes Up, Files First Lawsuits

As the co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, the patent-hoarding Bellevue firm he started in 2000 after leaving Microsoft nearly a billion dollars richer, Nathan Myhrvold has always insisted that a courthouse is the last place he wants to be. "Litigation is a huge failure," he told Businessweek four years ago. "It's a disastrous way of monetizing patents." Which would make this week IV's most disastrous ever.

On Wednesday, Myhrvold's company filed three separate patent-infringement lawsuits against nine other companies, including tech-security firms Symantec and McAfee. Technically, this isn't the first time IV's patents have been used in a lawsuit, as the company has been litigating by proxy through shell corporations of shady provenance for over a year. But symbolically, it's huge:The moment when the biggest of all patent trolls awakened.

"This is setting up perhaps the biggest battle in the history of the patent system," one patent lawyer told The Wall Street Journal. Still others think the battle could be so big and gum up the gears of innovation for so long that it might actually blow up a system many see as hopelessly dysfunctional.

So what's a patent troll? In the world of intellectual property, it's a company that buys up patents but doesn't create actual products. To some, a leech. To others, a necessary, if grotesque, member of the invention ecosystem.

Myhrvold has long held that IV doesn't fit the patent-troll definition. Even though his company holds more than 30,000 patents, making it the largest such operator that doesn't actually put out a product, he's always insisted that what keeps IV from being trollish--like fellow ex-Microsoftie Paul Allen, who earlier this year claimed he had patented the internet--is the fact that it doesn't sue.

A distinction which, as of yesterday, no longer applies.

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