Intellectual Ventures: Don't Mind Our 2000 Shell Companies, That's Totally Normal
from the nothing-nefarious-at-all dept
Back in 2010, we wrote about a report suggesting that Intellectual Ventures was using somewhere around 1000 shell companies to hide many of its patent shakedown attempts. For years, IV itself liked to say that it wasn’t involved in any patent litigation directly (that changed not so long ago), but we had seen some IV patents showing up from some small patent trolls, where it was impossible to determine who actually controlled the patent or the lawsuits. However, at times, other companies have argued that the shell lawsuits were really IV in disguise.
A few months ago, we wrote about an attempt to crowdfund an investigation into all of IV’s shell companies. While that attempt to raise money did not reach its goal, it has helped put renewed attention on IV’s use of a massive number of shell companies. In response, IV has been trying very hard to play down the whole thing. It published a ridiculous blog post arguing that the use of thousands of shell companies is just a normal business procedure:
This is a common practice for asset management firms, and it’s just common sense. Do stock brokers broadcast tips to their competitors? Does Warren Buffet tell the world where he’s investing next? Does Disney broadcast which plots of land it is planning to buy for its next theme park? Of course not, and IV takes a similar approach to our investments.
Ah, sure, this is all to throw other companies off the scent of what IV is “investing” in. That makes sense if IV were actually an investment company, rather than a shakedown play. The idea that publicly stating what patents it owns would somehow “broadcast tips” to “competitors” is ridiculous. Who out there is really an IV competitor? No, what IV is almost certainly worried about is that, if the extent of its activities were known, there would be more fodder for real and necessary reform against trolling — and, more importantly, it’s worried about tipping off the companies it’s about to go after. It’s not about competition — it’s about avoiding a smart company going to court to get a declaratory judgment against IV, which they admit later on in the post:
Moreover, were we to publish the entirety of our holdings we, or any other company for that matter, could find ourselves mired down in a series of tactical declaratory judgments and reexaminations.
Shocking. Perhaps if you didn’t go around demanding huge sums of money from companies with a giant stack of vague and overly-broad patents you wouldn’t face a series of declaratory judgments and re-exams.
In fact, no one has ever suggested that transparency is needed in the real estate world, yet properties are routinely held in the name of holding companies. When it comes to property ownership, patents shouldn’t be held to a different of set of rules
Well, if property holding companies routinely used their assets to shake down every other real estate owner out there, perhaps there would be calls for the practice to end. Plus, sorry, patents are not “property” like real estate is property. And, in fact, this is the key to IV’s entire business model. If patents properly delineated the boundaries of what the patents covered, there wouldn’t be much room for trolling. But, instead, IV relies on the fact that patents are broad and vague and “might” apply to all sorts of things.
In response to an article about all of this, IV also claimed that anyone who wanted to know about what patents IV holds can simply “search the USPTO’s public database.” Of course, this is a snarky and misleading answer for a number of reasons. First, it ignores the shell company patents. Second, it assumes that the USPTO’s search actually works well (it does not).
Thankfully, however, the good folks at PlainSite, who try to shine some light on the hidden corners of the legal system, decided to take Intellectual Ventures up on its offer — and actually went through the data to see what was lurking:
Like all of the USPTO’s on-line systems, the assignment database is a technological abomination–sadly ironic for the agency that effectively manages the nation’s technology rights. (The USPTO does deserve credit for making raw XML data available through Google, which is where our project began.) It must be noted that Intellectual Ventures would have had a much harder time lurking in the shadows all these years if government information technology systems, such as the USPTO assignment database and different states’ corporation databases, were kept up to par. In fact, its business model would likely be impossible, as the courts would be likely to label the company as a vexatious litigant if they only knew how many lawsuits it filed.
In the end, after digging through the database, PlainSite has identified — and released for all your enjoyment — the names of what appear to be over 2,000 shell companies, though they admit that some of them may be fully independent. But… many of them apparently had “some obvious overlaps” like sharing “managing corporations, telephone numbers, and other factors.” Oops. They’re hoping not to “crowdfund” the efforts here, but rather to crowdsource the data. As they note, they’re spreading this information, because “we hope that Congress and the courts take notice of one of the largest racketeering schemes ever perpetrated on the nation, with some of its richest billionaires acting more like thugs than visionaires.”
What’s really amazing in all of this is the way that IV execs keep spewing highly questionable arguments for why they’re not so evil, when all the data just keeps pointing in the other direction. You could almost respect the folks there if they just came out and admitted that they’d realized that there was a system that could be gamed, and they’ve gamed it to the tune of billions of dollars. But, instead, they keep trying to justify the company’s entire model by completely denying reality.