Don't Feed the Super-Troll

Who is the biggest threat to free software?

Not Bill Gates: he's still out there using the goodwill generated by his philanthropic efforts to gain access to the world's rulers and push Windows aggressively, but it's a diffuse kind of a danger, and one that local activists can handle. Not Steve Ballmer, who, with all his chair-throwing tantrums, is pretty much your average sound and fury, signifying nothing: he really doesn't seem to have a clue about how to deal with either free software or Google. No, the person who scares me the most is ex-Microsoftie Nathan Myhrvold.

Observing the rise of intellectual monopolies, and the success of patent trolls, he took the next logical step: creating the world's biggest patent troll by filing and acquiring not just a handful of patents, but tens of thousands of them, with the aim of “licensing” these indispensable inventions to other companies. The threat, of course, being that anyone foolish enough to refuse this kind offer would find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Well, it looks like the plan is working: companies are starting to cough up serious amounts of money:

The secretive Bellevue, Wash., "invention capital company" lays claim to about 27,000 patents. And after several years of buying IP and piling up money from investors, it's starting to make tech companies that it identifies as infringing on its patents pay -- in a big way.

Its latest deal is a licensing agreement with financial software company Intuit Inc. that will bring in $120 million, according to people who have been told about the transaction. In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that IV had closed IP deals with companies like Verizon and Cisco Systems Inc. for between $200 million and $400 million apiece..

As with all patent trolls, the danger is that the more companies accept these proffered licensing deals, the stronger the trolls become. I imagine we'll see many more such stories leaking out as Intellectual Ventures gains in confidence and ambition.

The big problem is not only that Myhrvold's an ex-Microsoftie, but that Microsoft is also an investor in the company; this means that we are not going to see Microsoft on the receiving end of Intellectual Venture's “offers”. But there is a very real danger that at some point the larger supporters of open source will be.

Like many others, I've long maintained that the biggest threat to the spread and growth of free software is not closed-source software as such, but the software patents that have been granted in some jurisdictions. Because of the nature of software, and of the trivial and obvious patents that have been inexplicably granted, it is inevitable that many if not most free software projects are using techniques for which patents have been granted. This means, in its turn, that it is likely that some of them will end up in Intellectual Ventures' trollish paws.

Expect, then, Mr Myhrvold to emerge as public enemy number one for the free software community; it's just a matter of time now that the super-troll has awoken from its deep slumbers and started to feed on those that foolishly fail to defend themselves.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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