Goliath vs. Goliath: Patent Beast Intellectual Ventures Sues AT&T

A controversial investment fund run by a former Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) executive just added more fuel to the tech industry’s runaway patent wars by filing a new suit against AT&T (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile.

In court papers filed in Delaware federal court, Intellectual Ventures said the telco companies are infringing on 14 separate patents that have descriptions like “Transmission of Multimedia Messages between Mobile Station Terminals.” The suit was announced on the company’s IV Insights blog.

Verizon is not named in the suit which means the country’s other major telco has probably agreed to license the technology. The lawsuit also confirms that the company is intent on going after big fish as well as small ones. The company began filing lawsuits in 2010 and is now involved in dozens of cases, including ones against Canon and Motorola.

Intellectual Ventures occupies a special place among patent holding companies. The company has for years been amassing thousands of patents and inviting companies to become “investors” in its investment funds. Critics say the practice amounts to extortion and describe I.V. as a giant patent troll.

Companies like Microsoft, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) are reported to be among Intellectual Ventures’ investors.

(Update: An IV spokesman provided the following statement: “Our investor group comprises both technology companies and institutional investors and foundations who have invested purely for financial reasons.” A full list of the company’s investors can be found here via the company’s website).

The company was founded by Nathan Myhrvold, a brilliant polyglot physicist who argues that his giant patent trove will bring about a new era of innovation. For now, it is uncertain if Intellectual Ventures is benefiting inventors or even its own investors. The company’s most high-profile work so far has involved the use of chemistry techniques to cook a hamburger.

The America Invents Act, passed last fall, has made it more difficult for patent plaintiffs to sue. But the law doesn’t affect existing patents and the last year has brought increase in patent lawsuits brought by major investment funds.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month on how the cream of the country’s patent bar are leaving their firms to join entities like Round Rock, a shell company backed by billionaire investment funds.

Note: This story corrects an earlier version to say IV began filing suits in 2010, not 2009. IV was an intervenor in a 2009 case but did not itself bring the suit.