Nathan Myrhvold and Jerome Lemelson: The Eccentric Innovators

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After I wrote the post on patent trolls last week, a coworker, Patent Analyst Larry Marcoux at Landon IP, told me about an interesting man who might have been considered a “patent troll.” Larry sent me a link to the Wikipedia article on Jerome Lemelson, and I got an introduction to one of the most innovative men in U.S. history. Mr. Lemelson held over 600 patents and was suing major companies for patent infringement until his death in 1997. Who could ever match Lemelson’s creativity and notoriety?

A blog post by Griffin Barnett over at Intellectual Property Brief soon provided an answer.  Nathan Myrhvold is a prolific inventor, a billionaire former CTO of Microsoft, and the founder of the company Intellectual Ventures, which is often accused of patent trolling. Both Lemelson and Myrhvold are inventors, successful businessmen, and participants in many patent-related lawsuits. Let’s take a closer look at the achievements and and controversies surrounding these men to see what they have in common.

Jerome Lemelson

Jerome Lemelson

According to his biography at the Lemelson Foundation website, Jerome Lemelson was born in 1923 in New York City. After participating in World War II as a member of the US Army Air Corps, he attended New York University where he earned “a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and two master’s degrees, one in aeronautical and one in industrial engineering.” Lemelson worked as an engineer and invented in his spare time until 1958, when he “quit his job and became a full time inventor.” Lemelson died in 1997 from cancer, but the Lemelson Foundation exists today to share his mission of “educating the inventors of tomorrow, supporting innovators from idea to impact, and delivering technologies that improve people’s lives.”

A full list of all 606 of Lemelson’s granted patents can be found at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center website. The 606 patents, issued between 1953 and 2009, range from toys to “inventions in communications and medical technologies, robotics and machine vision, and a variety of industrial processes.” The Lemelson-MIT Program site discusses how Lemelson’s most influential invention was his “magnetic tape drive mechanism”, since it eventually led to the creation of the Sony Walkman ™ .

Jerome Lemelson was also a savvy entrepreneur, and Lemelson-MIT Program biography describes how he “established the Licensing Management Corporation in the late 1960s to market his own inventions, in addition to those of other independent inventors.” He also sued or threatened to sue many companies for patent infringement on the patents he was granted, and he earned a fortune from licensing and royalties. A 1992 article in the New York Times by Edmund Andrews, entitled “Rich in the 90’s on Ideas Hatched in the 50’s,” details Lemelson’s success with threatened patent lawsuits:

Mr. Lemelson has in the last year forced more than a dozen big companies to pay him a total exceeding $100 million to keep him from suing them. His weapon: a fistful of patents, most of them based on inventions dating back to the 1950’s, for automated manufacturing systems that use robots and computerized machines that can see.

-Edmund Andrews, New York Times, 1992

Nathan Myrhvold

Nathan Myhrvold

An article by Mark McClusky in Wired magazine describes Nathan Myrhvold as a ” theoretical physicist and computer scientist [who] has the lifestyle flexibility of a multimillionaire and the mental discipline of a world-class researcher.” According to McClusky, Nathan Myrhvold grew up in Santa Monica, California and holds a master’s degree in geophysics and space physics, another master’s in mathematical economics, and a doctorate from Princeton University in theoretical and mathematical physics. He also worked with Stephen Hawking during a postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge University. Myrhvold “has hundreds of patents issued or pending.”

Myrhvold isn’t just a brilliant researcher and inventor. Like Lemelson, he is also a creative businessman. McClusky discusses how Myrhvold was the founder of a software company that “Microsoft bought in 1986, [he] founded Microsoft Research in 1991, and left the company as its CTO and chief strategist in 1999.” After he left Microsoft, Myrhvold co-founded the company Intellectual Ventures with Edward Jung, according to an article by Stuart Johnston at InternetNews.com.  Intellectual Ventures (IV) is a company that creates and buys up patents in order to license them out to other companies.   IV often sues or threatens to sue companies for patent infringement in order to force licensing agreements.  According to Stuart Johnson, “IV sued nine companies in the software security and DRAM industries for allegedly infringing some of its patents” in December 2010.

Conclusion

Both Nathan Myrhvold and Jerome Lemelson have been accused of patent trolling, but they seem to have a richer history than simply hoarding patents and suing anyone they can. Jerome Lemelson was an independent inventor who created his patent holdings through 40 years of diligent research and creativity. He shrewdly used his patent holdings to gain licensing agreements and royalties, and he established a foundation that continues to promote innovation even after his death. Myrhvold is a brilliant researcher and businessman who combined his scientific and technical background with his business skills to create a company that profits through licensing knowledge. What I’ve read about these men has taught me a powerful lesson: the label of “patent troll” is very subjective.

*A special thanks to commenter Arizona Patent Attorney, and his insightful comments on the “Troll Searching” post. They made me think about the “troll” label.

Patent Searches from Landon IP

This post was contributed by Joelle Mornini. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company Landon IP, a major provider of patent search, technical translation, and information services.

6 Responses

  1. The recent Intellectual Ventures suits present just one example showing that the NPE (“patent troll”) business model is fast becoming dominant in the world of IP. Thomas Edison held over 1,000 patents, but practiced none of them. He invented, which is what he did best, and let others manufacture products from his inventions. If an inventor cannot sue for patent infringement and recover damages, they why should anyone invent anything? Only vigorous patent enforcement rewards inventors for their inventions and incentivizes others to invent.

  2. I completely agree that the NPE business model is often misjudged and actually strengthens intellectual property rights by promoting patent enforcement.

  3. Rather I would say, people like nathan and lemelson have given a direction to many of the “paper patents” that existed in many parts of the world furthering more R&D by providing incentives.

  4. Do realize that the Lemelson model is no longer feasible, since publication at 18 months and a term of 20 years from filing do not allow the inventor to ‘defer’ granting (and thus public disclosure of the invention).

    Lemelson took advantage of the ability to file continuations in order to defer the tolling of the 17 years from grant clock until the market had developed the technology against which he could enforce the applications he had filed.

  5. Disappointed in your ‘conclusions’. Both of these men are a scourge to the high tech world.

    They limit innovation, they shut down small companies and they keep other small companies from being funded for fear of lawsuits.

    Taking advantage of a patent system ‘legally’ does not make what they do right. All it does is show that the patent system is profoundly broken. Celebrating these men is almost as bad as being them in my book.

    I’ll be posting that your troll friendly everywhere I can and, hopefully, helping to keep your readership to a minimum. You need to grow some morals.

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