This American Life on the awful, crooked mess of the patent system

This week, This American Life revisits the question of patents (a subject they did a very good job with in 2011), a move sparked by the attempt to shake down podcasters for patent royalties for a ridiculously overbroad patent from a company that went bust recording magazine articles to cassette and putting them in the mail. The new episode revisits the main stories raised in the earlier broadcast (don't worry, it stands alone), and does a remarkable job of making the case for substantive patent reform -- and pierces the veil on Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myrvold's notorious patent-troll-that-insists-it-isn't-a-troll.

NPR reporter Laura Sydell and This American Life producer/Planet Money co-host Alex Blumberg tell the story of Intellectual Ventures, which is accused of being the largest of the patent trolls. Executives at Intellectual Ventures insist they are not trolls, but rather, promoters of innovation. They buy patents from struggling inventors, which encourages those inventors to go out and invent more stuff. Intellectual Ventures offers an example of such an inventor, a man named Chris Crawford. But when Laura and Alex try and talk to Chris Crawford, it leads them on a long search, culminating in a small town in Texas, where they find a hallway full of seemingly empty offices with no employees.

496: When Patents Attack...Part Two!

MP3 link


  1. HAHAH! I just patented an invention that describes how buildings full of empty offices can be used to shift legal cases to overworked jurisdictions.

    3. PROFIT

  2. It was a good episode. Now they need to produce Part 3: Why is this happening? Who exactly is approving these patents in the first place? Who were the actual patent officers who approved the “patent to transmit data over the internet”? Why are there no less than 6 active patents on toasting bread? Is it ignorance that results in these patents getting approval? Politics? Corruption? That is the real question. 
    Are these guys like IV who game the system the symptom or the cause?

    1. I’d abolish patents on anything that isn’t a physical product. Possibly anything. Not keen on copyright either. I digress, but wanted to establish my bias.

      First and foremost the purpose of the US patent office is to approve patents. They are currently massively over-worked – an argument for raising the price of patent applications perhaps – so they do the minimum which is search to see if anyone already has the same patent. The same, not similar. It’s okay to have similar patents after all. I imagine this search is fairly perfunctory.

      They don’t guarantee that every patent they grant is valid and that’s why there is a LOT of patent litigation. The patent office is there to grant patents, the courts are there to establish the legitimacy of those patents. So yeah, the system is FUBAR.

  3. This ep pissed me off so much. 

    It’s so obvious that the whole thing is just an extortion racket run by unscrupulous asshole lawyers with fake companies that lie about their motivation. Anyone with half a brain knows this is shady and so not serving the original intended purpose of patents.  One would think that, in a civilized society, judges wouldn’t put up with this nonsense for a second.  But not here in the good ol’ US of A! Strong-arming people with legal threats is our God-given right!

  4. To me it appears they are purposely going after the wrong people.  Content providers are not violating the patent, Apple is, hmmm I wonder why they didn’t go after Apple…

    1. They went after Apple on a playlist patent and eventually settled with them out of court. I’d guess part of the settlement was to not bother Apple any more.

  5. I’d love to see the whole Prenda saga get featured on This American Life.  I’m sure that they could find some great quote to mis-attribute to Torey Malatia.

  6. I note that you have no link to your post about the original 2011 broadcast: that’s because there wasn’t one, as you choose to ignore it completely at the time — though you seemed happy to post stuff about what a swell fellow Nathan Myrvold was and the cool things he was doing.

    Well, better late than never.

    1. Please find one post from Cory that is positive about Myhrvold (at least get the name right when you try to be snarky).

      There are several posts from Cory that are critical of him in regard to 3D printing patents.

      Sure there are a number of posts from other BB bloggers that are positive, but by using the pronoun “you” in one of Cory’s posts you seem to be calling out Cory specifically. You are aware there are multiple people who blog here and they have somewhat varied interests right?

  7. Thanks, Cory.  I went to TAL’s website yesterday and found two choices: listen online or go to iTunes and pay $0.99… Sigh.  So I didn’t do either.

    1. Or you could subscribe to podcast and listen to this episode, the latest episode for free.

    2. Hmm. It used to be the free download option for the newest episode took you to a new page with a Quicktime player, and you could save that file to your computer with a little finagling. They appear to have changed the format, though, so I’m not sure how you would go about it now.

  8. Weren’t there some posts on BoingBoing awhile back featuring patent troll cases where the judge threw out the case, or ruled against the patent trolls? I feel like I remember reading about that (and cheered) but can’t recall the details now. But those would seem like worthwhile additions to the TAL story.

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