Nathan Myhrvold: It's Ok To Kill Innovation If You're Also Killing Mosquitoes

from the that's-not-how-it-works dept

You may have seen the story last week about how Intellectual Ventures is trying to hire a "VP of Global Good" to take some of IV's ideas -- not a single one of which has ever been brought to market -- and see about bringing them to the developing world. Here's what this is about: every time people talk about Intellectual Ventures and the way it's put a massive, pointless and wasteful tax on innovation around the globe, IV and its founder Nathan Myhrvold point to their laser mosquito zapper. It's the go-to talking point. "We're zapping mosquitoes and stopping malaria." Except, of course, that the product is just a demo, not anything out in the market. So, the VP of "Global Good" is to try to actually get the product out there and used. Of course, some of us are skeptical as to how effective it really would be, but we'll reserve judgment there.

That said, Jeff Roberts, over at GigaOm, properly called out Intellectual Ventures for its hypocrisy in calling for "Global Good" when the company's entire business is focused on screwing over innovators by charging them an often substantial tax by bundling together tens of thousands of broad patents. Roberts notes that anyone taking the job is signing up for a "Faustian bargain."
The future “VP of Global Good” will be hard-pressed then to carry out enough good works to offset the colossal harm of his or her employer. Unless, of course, they choose to close the company and reform the patent system.
The ever-thin-skinned Myhrvold took exception to that and mocked GigaOm -- a company that actually produces something, unlike Myhrvold's company -- because Malaria!
I think we do a whole lot more good for the world than GigaOm does. How big is their malaria research project? How much effort do they put into polio? I’m quite curious! What on Earth have they done that is —

You know, I was at a conference recently where someone said, “Well, do you feel good about what you’re doing?” I turned to this person who is an entrepreneur at a prominent social networking website, and I said, “OK, fine. You’re about people sending little messages to each other and having fun on a social network. How big is your malaria project?”

It turns out it’s very easy if you have a technology-centric mindset to think, Ah yes, Zynga, they’re doing — I don’t mean to call Zynga out in a negative way, but is Zynga doing God’s work? Is Facebook doing God’s work? Even setting aside what God’s work means, I think it’s pretty easy to say, those companies are doing wonderful things, but they are for-profit ventures. It’s either tools or toys for the rich. There really is a role in taking great technological ideas and trying to harness them for the poorest people on Earth.
This is disingenuous to the point of being sickening. IV is very much a "for-profit venture" as well. In fact, if the leaks from the incredibly secretive company, concerning how much they charge companies are accurate, it's a massively profitable venture. And, if we're talking about "tools or toys for the rich," there's no better example of who Myhrvold is describing... than Myhrvold himself. Remember this is the guy who is selling a $600 cookbook about how to use modern technology to prepare your food.

But this claim -- that if you're not doing anything about malaria, you can't comment on how harmful Intellectual Ventures is for innovation, the economy and for society -- is ridiculous. Roberts, thankfully, hits back hard in a piece entitled, Malaria is no excuse for patent trolling, Mr. Myhrvold. Here's a snippet:

Well, the sentiment is certainly a noble one. The problem, though, is that Myhrvold is utterly unfit to espouse it. As we’ve stated before, no amount of philanthropy can undo the incredible ruin his company has unleashed on innovation through unfettered patent trolling. Lest you doubt, consider the following:

New research shows that Intellectual Ventures is tied to at least 1,300 shell companies whose sole purpose is to coerce real companies into buying patent license that they don’t want or need. Those who resist the “patent trolls” are dragged into nightmarish lawsuits.

Think what this means in practice. It means thousands of entrepreneurs must divert revenue from development and technology to pay Mr. Myhrvold’s licensing tax or else brace for millions in legal fees. Worse, Intellectual Ventures is targeting some of the most promising young start-ups in the country like hand-craft site Etsy. Now, instead of hiring workers and bolstering the economy, Etsy and others must put aside money to pay for Mr. Myhrvold instead.

And, of course, for all the talk of stopping malaria, the bug zapping demo is just that. It's a demo. He hasn't done anything to stop malaria either. He's produced a fancy demo that the slobbering press loves, so that he can pretend to be doing good for the world, while being the single largest force against innovation in our economy today. The companies Myhrvold is shaking down and suing are producing real products in the real world, not just demanding people pay them or get sued.

Myhrvold is proving himself not to just be a completely obnoxious patent troll with his efforts, but now one who hides behind ridiculous moral relativism to hit back at critics with very real gripes. It's sickening.

Filed Under: jeff roberts, malaria, mosquitoes, nathan myhrvold, patent trolling, patents
Companies: gigaom, intellectual ventures

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  1. identicon
    Paul Renault, 13 Aug 2012 @ 2:32pm

    If you kill all the mosquitoes...

    ...what are the birds going to eat?


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