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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