The godfather of patent trolls opens up (a bit) as Senate pushes reform bill

Intellectual Ventures, the largest and most notorious of the patent trolls, decided this week to identify 32,000 of the 40,000 or so patents it has been using to threaten companies large and small in the name of “innovation.”

IV displayed the partial list on its website as a searchable index and a bare bones spreadsheet. The disclosure did not, however, include a list of the myriad shell companies it has spawned, some of which have been become infamous for acts like shaking down small app developers and Martha Stewart and using a patent donated to charity to start a lawsuit campaign.

Intellectual Ventures also did not provide details about why it released the partial list beyond publishing a bland statement that reads in part, “Customers want to see what is currently available to license or buy and others are curious about our holdings and our intentions.”

In response to a question about the timing of the release, a spokesman said by email that, “this week was simply the week the list was ready.”

A more likely explanation, suggested by some on Twitter, is that the company wanted the news to coincide with a U.S. Senate committee hearing this week on a bill intended to curb the abuses of patent trolling. The proposed Innovation Act, which is expected to become law next year, contains a provision that would require trolls — which are typically faceless shell companies that actually don’t make or do anything related to their patents — to identify who is actually controlling them.

The disclosure by Intellectual Ventures might thus provide the unpopular company with a speck of positive PR as the Senate scrutinizes trolling practices that, by some accounts, have bled companies to the tune of $29 billion. Meanwhile, for now, the company also has at least 8,000 other patents it has not disclosed and which it may be saving for future muggings.

In response to criticism, Intellectual Ventures typically invokes lofty tales about providing money to American inventors but, by now, patience appears to be wearing thin. The troll model is under fire in Congress, the tech sector and in media outlets like the New York Times. Meanwhile, the patent system as a whole is under scrutiny by the Supreme Court and by columnists like Gordon Crovitz, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week:

Instead of encouraging innovation, patent law has become a burden on entrepreneurs, especially startups without teams of patent lawyers.

Intellectual Ventures has responded to the criticism by pouring money into Washington lobbying efforts and seeking $3 billion for a new patent trolling fund.