Paul Allen: Patent Troll

Patent Troll (Not to Scale)

Paul Allen’s net worth is $13.5 billion, give or take. He’s about 57 years old. He’s had cancer twice. But let’s give him a life expectancy of 25 years. To spend his net worth, if he never made another dime, he’d have to go through $540 million a year.

That’s $1.5 million a day.

Even a guy who owns two giant yachts, the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trailblazers would be hard-pressed to blow through $13.5 billion. WC thinks this qualifies as obscenely rich.

But a guy who would have to spend $62,500 per minute the rest of his life is not, apparently, rich enough.

So he has caused his company, Interval Research, to file a patent infringement lawsuit against most of the world’s high tech companies.

WC is no IP lawyer, but he think the patents themselves are darn pretty vague:

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,263,507, for “Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data.” Think news aggregator (like Google News or Digg) or, really, any of the thousands of sites featuring a box with “related stories” on it (including the one you’re reading right now).
  • U.S. Patent Nos. 6,034,652 & 6,788,314, both titled “Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device.” Think stock ticker, headline feed, Twitter widget — anything that updates continually in the periphery of a site.
  • U.S. Patent No. 6,757,682, for “Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest.” Think RSS feeder, Google alerts, anything that presents content based on keywords you’ve selected or on your past activity, like Amazon or Netflix recommendations.

It will take a very long, very expensive lawsuit to determine if these are valid patents, and whether use of similar technologies by Google, Apple, AOL and a dozen other major companies infringe on those four patents. The intellectual property lawyers will make a fortune, but you have to ask why the world’s 31st richest person is acting like a patent troll.

A patent troll is a company that produces nothing, but purchases intellectual property rights and then sues anyone and everyone it thinks infringes on those intellectual property rights. Mostly, these are hold-up lawsuits. The real economic pressure is the millions of dollars that the defendants will have to spend prove there is no infringement. And, for the most part, it’s all a consequence of the deeply dysfunctional patent law. In the finest tradition of the Bush Administration, these bottom feeders have emerged as a kind of sick, anti-entrepreneurism. A kind of parasitic tapeworm on businesses that actually do something.

So why is Paul Allen, who has no use for or need of additional wealth, playing the role of tapeworm? Does he feel overshadowed by his former Microsoft partner, Bill Gates? Is he worried that Steve Jobs is more famous? Does he really think that playing patent troll will gain him fame?

Lord knows he doesn’t need the money. But be careful clicking on links on this page: you may be violating Paul Allen’s patents.