The Story Behind This American Life's 'When Patents Attack'

from the backstory dept

I had the pleasure this week of being on KUER’s RadioWest program talking about the patent system. However, the much more interesting part of the show is the first segment (without me), which features Alex Blumberg and Laura Sydell, the two reporters who did the amazing “When Patents Attack!” report for This American Life earlier this year which received so much attention and has helped drive more mainstream recognition of the problems with today’s patent system.

Alex and Laura, with the help of host Doug Fabrizio, go through the backstory behind the “When Patents Attack!” episode, discussing how Alex originally intended it to be a short segment on this crazy idea of “patent trolls,” with the idea of having a patent troll discuss why they do what they do. But, from there, the story kept getting more interesting — especially after Intellectual Ventures simply could not credibly point to a single situation in which they’d helped to better society by helping bring new products to life or even of any inventors who they’d helped, beyond just getting their patents into litigation. It’s a fascinating story in part because of how it developed, and how the deeper these two reporters dug into the subject, the less and less the patent system made sense. One telling point in the discussion is when Laura points out that so many of the people they talked to who defended the system never seemed to be able to credibly explain the larger picture. Instead, they were just focused on the narrow “trees” rather than the full “forest.” And that, of course, is because they’re making money off those trees, and the concerns for the fact that they’re cutting down the larger forest are ignored.

I’m reminded of the famous Upton Sinclair quote:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Laura had to leave around the 26 minute mark, at which point I got to join the discussion and discuss some of the history around the patent system, and how little the patent system actually has to do with innovation. There were a variety of topics we covered, and I was tempted to dig deeper on each and every one of them — especially Alex’s brief discussion of James Bessen’s work about patents and pharmaceuticals, which is an entirely different debate than tech-related patents, but no less troubling. However, in the interest of time and keeping the show flowing I tried to keep the comments as straightforward and simple as possible. Either way it was fun to be on the show and I enjoyed talking with Doug and Alex about the patent system… and was happy that the problems of the patent system are continuing to get more mainstream news attention.

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Comments on “The Story Behind This American Life's 'When Patents Attack'”

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out_of_the_blue says:

You totally fumbled "whether this mess can be fixed"?

Yes: require a working physical model for all patents. Easy to implement, removes all software and methods from consideration, along with resolves the mutiple devices problem. You don’t have to credit me, since if you knew anything of history in this area, the Patent Office required such until early 20th C, as I recall.

But, because tangled up in complexities, you fumbled it, left all unresolved, on a low note.

VMax says:

Re: You totally fumbled "whether this mess can be fixed"?

Apologies to all for feeding obvious troll; but as a software engineer, it’s easy to create. As far as hardware; if you can’t really build it, it’s not worthy of a patent. On a brighter note, I hear your time travel patent is going to be granted soon. Good luck with trolling Ben Franklin.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hey Mike, you are back up to “troubling”… life must really suck when all this stuff troubles you so much. I get the picture of you walking down the street mumbling to yourself, all troubled by the world around you.

Too bad the radio thing was entirely one sided, and an open invitation for you to spout of your usual nonsense.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why don’t you ask to join one of these shows or to join a public debate about the subject. Oh, that’s right, IP maximists are afraid to debate critics.

They close the comment sections of their blog while Techdirt keeps the comment sections open. We welcome both sides, but the mainstream media only presents one side because they know that their side is indefensible in the face of criticism.

As the show points out, they tried to talk to IP maximists and patent trolls to try to discuss the issue. I’m sure they would be more than glad to have you on the show. Mike is not anonymous, yet you are (and there is nothing wrong with being anonymous). If you want to present your side of the issue, you’re welcome to it. No one is stopping you.

But all you’re doing is complaining that the podcast is one sided without presenting an alternative side. No IP maximists want to go on the podcast to debate the issue with critics, because they’re too afraid. The show tried to talk to IP apologists to get their side, and they refused. Just like the IP trolls here on Techdirt. All they do is complain, they never present their side. Perhaps they don’t have one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

and the above does not mention the fact that the government established mainstream media cartel won’t even allow IP critics to present their viewpoints. MM has said before that he’ll go on public television to discuss these matters with IP maximists, so that the mainstream television can give a ‘balanced’ view, yet the mainstream television will never allow IP critics the opportunity to discuss their side of the debate. They want to present only one side of the debate. Yet we allow IP maximists to present their side of the debate on our forums.

The laws themselves are one sided (in favor of IP), and so is the government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Actually the AC’s I’m referring to don’t bring the other side’s ideas and opinions, and seem quite incapable of having a mature, reasoned debate. Instead all they offer are snarky and repetitive insults or lame little digs like yours above. Nobody wants to shut down the opposition, at least not here where the comments are always open.

Perhaps i should amend my comment and say that this is so true of many of the Anonymous Cowards that comment here lately. There’s been a definite increase in the FUD/broadbrush/slimy/chubby crap that I hope you aren’t claiming is your side of the “debate”. It’s hard to believe this isn’t coming from people with vested interests.

Feel free to prove me wrong. We’d all be better off if I were.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“It’s the simple way to ignore the other side’s ideas and opinions”

No one is ignoring your opinion, it’s simply that we have yet to see you present one, along side an attempt to defend it with any sort of logic or evidence.

I can simply present the opinion that “the moon is made of cheese”. That’s not good enough. I need facts, evidence, logic, etc… to reasonably convince anyone. IP maximists have failed to present anything. Heck, they often won’t even present an opinion, all they present are a bunch of FUD like your post.

staff says:

another biased article

“Alex Blumberg and Laura Sydell”

All they exposed was their ignorance of patents. The title to a patent has nothing to do with what it covers.

Masnick and his monkeys have an unreported conflict of interest-

They sell blog filler and “insights” to major corporations including MS, HP, IBM etc. who just happen to be some of the world?s most frequent patent suit defendants. Obviously, he has failed to report his conflicts as any reputable reporter would. But then Masnick and his monkeys are not reporters. They are patent system saboteurs receiving funding from huge corporate infringers. They cannot be trusted and have no credibility. All they know about patents is they don?t have any.

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