Over at the Daily Weekly yesterday, Caleb Hannan called out Slate for celebrating Nathan Myhrvold as a catalyst for innovation without mentioning upfront that the former Microsoft exec is a known patent troll. While Slate's Jacob Weisberg says interview outtakes addressing the issue will surface in an upcoming podcast, the omission didn't surprise me: Here in the food world, Myhrvold's day job as a patent hoarder is never discussed.
Myhrvold's epic Modernist Cuisine didn't make much a splash down in Dallas, where I was living when the $625, seven-volume cookbook was released. But his theories are central to culinary conversations in his hometown, where he's hailed as a hero for deciphering braising and masterminding cutaway photos of steaming broccoli. I was so sold on Myhrvold's contributions to gastronomy that when I heard a teaser for a This American Life segment portraying Myhrvold as an intellectual bully, I couldn't believe it was the same guy who revealed the secrets of carrot air.
The innovation-busting shenanigans of Intellectual Ventures, Myrhvold's Bellevue firm, had been exposed long before This American Life made them an investigative target. But I hadn't been paying attention to the right sources. My Myrhvold information came from food-themed stories like the New Yorker's "The Mad Genius of 'Modernist Cuisine'", a profile that mentions Myrhvold's patent activities only in passing: "He is the founder and C.E.O. of the company Intellectual Ventures, which has developed hundreds of patents," John Lanchester wrote before a lengthy sous vide digression.
Myrhvold is a patent troll. He's also a culinary giant. And those twain just never seem to meet.
While it's surely too unscientific a test to merit a modernist's approval, a simple Google search establishes the gulf between Myrhvold's personas: a search for the terms "modernist cuisine" and "patent troll" brings up pages and pages of citations from wonky publications dealing in technology and finance. (The lone exception is a brand new video from Eater National in which Myhrvold fielded questions from Harvard students, one of whom dared to ask Myhrvold to compare the kitchen tradition of sharing techniques with patent trolling. "Most cooking things aren't actually relevant for patenting because they're neither the type of thing that is covered by patents nor are they the type of thing you can actually make money on," responded he who owns patents on cooking things.) When Epicurious, The Huffington Post and the New York Times named Modernist Cuisine to their "best cookbooks of 2011" lists, not one of the publications saw fit to mention Myrhvold's extracurriculars.
The two topics are so weirdly disparate that the perpetual omission is somewhat understandable. Modernist cooking is already a hugely complicated topic: References to patent law and economics could vault its explanation from esoteric to unintelligible, especially since few food writers have the legal background to properly parse what's earned Myhrvold's firm the title of "patent troll public enemy #1." Still, it's hard to square the thirst for omniscience that propels a Modernist Cuisine purchase with the willful ignorance that surrounds the book's coverage in the culinary press.
Yet there's certainly a case to be made that how Myrhvold earns his money doesn't matter to a home cook trying to better understand his backyard grill. Myrhvold's practices aren't illegal under the current patent system, just questionable, and we typically don't hold our artists and scientists responsible for their personal ethical choices. For all the gossip generated by Woody Allen's romantic relationship with his step-adopted daughter, film critics have since managed to review his movies without referencing it.
The problem is that the concepts celebrated by Modernist Cuisine and the issues posed by patent trolling aren't entirely unrelated. As Lanchester wrote in the New Yorker, the cookbook "proposes all kinds of new possibilities for food that takes us beyond familiar sensation and familiar language." New possibilities, which advance our collective understanding of the world and - perhaps more importantly right now - our economy, are exactly what Intellectual Ventures is committed to stamping out. That's a point too important for food lovers to ignore.