In June, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton surprised business leaders by issuing a detailed Technology and Innovation platform.  Tech issues rarely feature in Presidential campaigns, but Clinton seems determined to shore up an already strong position in Silicon Valley by promising an administration that recognizes the singular role disruptive innovation has played in driving U.S. economic growth over the last two decades.

Clinton’s plan may have been designed to deflect concern here in California and other innovation hubs about growing criticism of the tech economy from the Obama Administration and Democrats on the left.  Just a day after Clinton released her plan, for example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has taken an increasingly active role in the campaign, directly attacked leading technology companies including Apple, Amazon and Google, hinting that they had grown too large to escape the blunt instrument of antitrust to break them up.

Overall, the Clinton agenda is something of a dog’s breakfast, mixing unlikely promises for significantly increased federal spending in education, basic research, and infrastructure with more specific reforms in such hot-button areas as immigration, intellectual property, and tech infrastructure.

Though nearly every aspect of the plan would require a cooperative Congress, there is still much to admire in the particulars, and, more to the point, much that innovators and their investors have wanted to hear from Washington for a long time:

Immigration - Among Silicon Valley’s highest priorities, for example, Clinton promises “comprehensive” immigration reform, including a pledge to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of non-U.S. masters and PhD students in science and engineering, “enabling international students who complete degrees in these fields to move to green card status.”  No technology company would object to that proposal.

Patents - Clinton also pledges to fix the badly out-of-balance patent system, although here the promised reforms are modest.  Clinton endorses legislation floating around Congress that would break the stranglehold of the notoriously plaintiff-friendly Eastern District of Texas, which openly courts patent trolls and frivolous litigation.  But there is no mention of larger patent issues, notably the scaling back or eliminating patent protection for software and business methods, an invention of the courts and the patent office in recent years.  The consensus, even among many leading software providers, is that those new categories have done far more harm than good.

Copyright - On copyrights, Clinton promises a law that would “unlock” a ballooning number of older written and audio-visual works that, thanks to repeated and retroactive copyright extensions on behalf of Disney and other large rights holders, can’t be licensed or used because no one knows who owns them anymore.  (Liberation of so-called “orphan works” would have been enabled by a proposed settlement in a case involving wholesale scanning by Google Books, but that settlement was scuttled in 2011.  Google went on to win the case outright.)  The Clinton plan is silent, however, on scaling back the expanding copyrights that created the orphan works problem—and others—in the first place.

The Sharing Economy - During the primaries, both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Secretary Clinton raised repeated concerns about new “sharing economy” services, including Uber and TaskRabbit, that help contractors and freelancers coordinate their work through network technologies.  Sanders dismissed these services as “unregulated” and said he had “serious problems” with Uber in particular.  For her part, Clinton said last year that network-based employment raised “hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

Clinton’s Tech and Innovation plan is more measured, if non-committal, about whether she sees the sharing economy as a direct attack on unions and labor regulators.  She promises only to “convene a high level working group of experts, business and labor leaders to recommend how best to ensure that people have the benefits and security they need no matter how they work.”  Depending on what specific “benefits and security” her experts believe casual workers need, that could mean either an endorsement of the sharing economy or its death by a thousand regulations.

Broadband Infrastructure - The recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission, at the urging of the White House, to transform Internet access into a public utility has already spooked investors, who spent nearly $1.5 trillion over the previous twenty years continually upgrading broadband infrastructure even as America’s roads, bridges, water pipes, gas mains and electrical grid—the actual public utilities—fell catastrophically behind.  (D.C.’s own Metro system, once the city’s pride and joy, is largely closed for the summer for repairs.)

On that front, the Clinton agenda gets a mix grade.  On the positive side, the candidate strongly endorses reducing regulatory barriers (largely at the state and local level, however) that unnecessarily deter more and more efficient private infrastructure, including “dig once” and “climb once” policies to encourage faster deployment of, respectively, fiber optic cable and next-generation mobile equipment.

But at the same time, and even as the Clinton plan waves in the direction of continued Internet self-governance under the multistakeholder process that has worked so well, Secretary Clinton “strongly supports” the idea that Internet access should be closely regulated as a utility.  As I’ve argued before, that approach is bound to slow both the speed and size of investments in continued infrastructure improvements.

Radio Spectrum for 5G Networks – On the plus side of the ledger, Clinton promises to continue President Obama’s support for next-generation mobile networks, known as 5G, which utilize densely-packed cellular antennae and higher-band radio spectrum to offer as much as 100 times the speed and capacity of today’s wireless Internet. Secretary Clinton promises to release spectrum warehoused by the federal government itself, and to support a mix of licensed, unlicensed, and shared new frequencies that will accelerate nascent 5G applications including the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles, as well as increasingly high-definition video.

Internet Adoption -  The Clinton plan also promises to expand broadband entitlement programs aimed at closing what remains of the digital divide.  But these programs, including the troubled Broadband Technology Opportunities Fund, have had limited (if any) success.  So far, they’ve produced little besides wasted taxpayer billions and corruption.

While everyone shares the goal of universal broadband adoption for all Americans, the solution doesn’t come from raising taxes on consumer phone bills (currently approaching 20%!) to fund poorly-managed programs to subsidize rural and low-income communities.  Among those who do not have a broadband connection at home, as repeated surveys make clear, availability and even price are rarely cited as the principal reasons.

Non-adopters—especially older Americans—don’t have a broadband connection, it turns out, largely because they don’t want one.  Rightly or wrongly, digital hold-outs don’t see the Internet as having any relevance to their life.  That was a problem identified as long ago as 2010 in the visionary National Broadband Plan, from which the Clinton agenda cribs frequently without acknowledgment.   And it’s one problem government could play a crucial role in solving through public education and the President’s bully pulpit.  But not from throwing more money at federal contractors.


As Secretary Clinton’s wish list suggests, what Silicon Valley really wants from both presidential candidates is not more government, but less.  In many cases, much less.

That desire, of course, distinguishes tech from most special interests, and Clinton’s team deserves praise for getting it at least partly right.  For years, I’ve watched visiting politicians looking to partner with the venture community grow disappointed to hear from tech leaders across the political spectrum that they don’t actually want new federal programs or legislation aimed at promoting innovation.

What they really want most is to be left alone; to be allowed to continue to practice the kind of largely unregulated experimentation that the Mercatus Center’s Adam Thierer calls “permissionless innovation.”  That wise policy has been strongly supported by a bi-partisan coalition since the mid-1990’s.  It has done more than any grant or subsidy could to promote U.S. leadership in the Internet and other emerging technologies, in sharp contrast to Europe, where centralized innovation planning and micromanagement have had the opposite effect.

But Washington’s commitment to permissionless innovation has been under attack, particularly in the last few years.  As the innovation economy increasingly becomes the economy, lawmakers can’t help but refocus their attention there.  Law enforcement and intelligence operations, at the same time, are increasingly wary of open networks and encrypted communications (about which the Clinton plan hedges), generating some very public fights with innovators in the name of both consumer privacy and national security.

The closer the next President--whoever it turns out to be--can hew to the U.S.’s longstanding if battered commitment to let a thousand Silicon Valley start-ups bloom, the better off everyone will be, in the short as well as the long run.  Political pandering aside, what the innovation ecosystem really needs is a reboot of the 1990’s promise to leave the Internet “unfettered by Federal or State regulation” – a policy that now needs expansion to equally high-potential disruptors in energy, materials, robotics, genomics, health care, transportation and manufacturing.

That, in any case, is the lesson of the last election in which innovation policy played a major role—the election, that is, of that other Clinton.


This week, Forbes Senior Online Editor Kashmir Hill and I launched a new video series, “VC/DC,” where we review the latest developments at the accident-prone intersection of technology and policy. The first two episodes are embedded below.

We’ve envisioned the series as a regular look at the policy issues technology companies and investors should be paying attention to but probably aren’t.

Kashmir and I each bring a unique perspective to technology and policy. A former D.C. resident, Kashmir relocated to the Bay Area a few years ago to cover privacy, security, digital currency and other cutting edge topics.

As a Silicon Valley veteran who now spends nearly half my time in Washington at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, on the other hand, I am working to bridge the gap between disruptive innovations and the regulators who sometimes love them to death.

The program will cover a wide range of topics, and won’t be limited just to developments inside the beltway. As our inaugural episodes makes clear, we’re also looking closely at how technology businesses are affected by local and international laws, as well as developments in the courts and the legal system overall.

I hope you like the series and find it interesting enough to subscribe.  We'd be grateful for your feedback in any case, as well as suggestions for future episodes.


Episode 1:  "The Accident-Prone Intersection of Innovation and Policy"


Episode 2:  "Security Standards and the Patent Crisis"

When the smoke cleared and I found myself half caught-up on sleep, the information and sensory overload that was CES 2013 had ended.

There was a kind of split-personality to how I approached the event this year.  Monday through Wednesday was spent in conference tracks, most of all the excellent Innovation Policy Summit put together by the Consumer Electronics Association.  (Kudos again to Gary Shapiro, Michael Petricone and their team of logistics judo masters.)

The Summit has become an important annual event bringing together legislators, regulators, industry and advocates to help solidify the technology policy agenda for the coming year and, in this case, a new Congress.

I spent Thursday and Friday on the show floor, looking in particular for technologies that satisfy what I coined the The Law of Disruptionsocial, political, and economic systems change incrementally, but technology changes exponentially.

What I found, as I wrote in a long post-mortem for Forbes, is that such technologies are well-represented at CES, but are mostly found at the edges of the show--literally.

In small booths away from the mega-displays of the TV, automotive, smartphone, and computer vendors, in hospitality suites in nearby hotels, or even in sponsored and spontaneous hackathons going on around town, I found ample evidence of a new breed of innovation and innovators, whose efforts may yield nothing today or even in a year, but which could become sudden, overnight market disrupters.

Increasingly, it's one or the other, which is saying something all by itself.  For one thing, how do incumbents compete with such all or nothing innovations?

That, however, is a subject for another day.

For now, consider again the policy implications of such dramatic transformations.  As those of us sitting in room N254 debated the finer points of software patents, IP transition, copyright reform, and the misapplication of antitrust law to fast-changing technology industries (increasingly, that means ALL industries), just a few feet away the real world was changing under our feet.

The policy conference was notably tranquil this year, without such previous hot-button topics as net neutrality, SOPA, or the lack of progress on spectrum reform to generate antagonism among the participants.  But as I wrote at the conclusion of last year's Summit, at CES, the only law that really matters is Moore's Law.  Technology gets faster, smaller, and cheaper, not just predictably but exponentially.

As a result, the contrast between what the regulators talk about and what the innovators do gets more dramatic every year, accentuating the figurative if not the literal distance between the policy Summit and the show floor.  I felt as if I had moved between two worlds, one that follows a dainty 19th century wind-up clock and the other that marks time using the Pebble watch, a fully-connected new timepiece funded entirely by Kickstarter.

The lesson for policymakers is sobering, and largely ignored.  Humility, caution, and a Hippocratic-like oath of first-do-no-harm are, ironically, the most useful things regulators can do if, as they repeat at shorter intervals, their true goal is to spur innovation, create jobs, and rescue American entrepreneurialism.

The new wisdom is simple, deceptively so.  Don't intervene unless and until it's clear that there is demonstrable harm to consumers (not competitors), that there's a remedy for the harm that doesn't make things, if only unintentionally, worse, and that the next batch of innovations won't solve the problem more quickly and cheaply.

Or, as they say to new interns in the Emergency Room, "Don't just do something.  Stand there."

That's a hard lesson to learn for those of us who think we're actually surgical policy geniuses, only to find increasingly we're working with blood-letting and leeches.  And no anesthesia.

In some ways, it's the opposite of an approach that Adam Thierer calls the Technology Precautionary Principle.  Instead of panicking when new technologies raise new (but likely transient) issues, first try to let Moore's Law sort it out, until and if it becomes crystal clear that it can't.  Instead of a hasty response, opt for a delayed response.  Call it the Watchful Waiting Principle.

Not as much fun as fuming, ranting, and regulating at the first sign of chaos, of course, but far more helpful.

That, if anything, is the thread of my dispatches from Vegas, in any case:

  1. Telcos Race Toward an all-IP Future,” CNET
  2. At CES, Companies Large and Small Bash Broken Patent System, Forbes
  3. FCC, Stakeholders Align on Communications Policy—For Now,” CNET
  4. The Five Most Disruptive Technologies at CES 2013, Forbes

I've written two articles on the Protect IP Act of 2011, introduced last week by Sen. Leahy (D-Vt.).

For CNET, I look at some of the key differences, better and worse, between Protect IP and its predecessor last year, known as COICA.

On Forbes this morning, I have a long meditation on what Protect IP says about the current state of the Internet content wars.  Copyright, patent, and trademark are under siege from digital technology, and for now at least are clearly losing the arms race.

The new bill isn't exactly the nuclear option in the fight between the media industries and everyone else, but it does signal increased desperation.

I'm not exactly a non-combatant here.  Increasingly, everyone is being dragged into this fight, including search engines, ISPs, advertisers, financial transaction processors, and, in Protect IP is passed, anyone who uses a hyperlink.

But as someone who earns his living from information exchanges--what the law anachronistically calls "intellectual property"--I'm not exactly an anarchist either (or as one recent commenter on CNET called me, a complete anarchist!).

The development of an information economy will stabilize and mature at some point, and, I believe, the new supply chain will be richer, more profitable, and give a greater share of the value than the current one does to those who actually create new content.  (Most of the cost of information products and services today is eaten up by middlemen, media, and distribution.)

But it's not an especially smooth or predictable trajectory.  Joseph Schumpeter didn't call it creative destruction for nothing.



"On the whole, the results certainly seem to suggest that patent trolls with software patents do very much view the system as a lottery ticket, and they're willing to use really weak patents to try to win that prize. That is not at all what the patent system is designed to do, but it's how the incentives have been structured -- and that seems like a pretty big problem that isn't solved just by showing how many of these lawsuits fail. The amount of time and resources wasted on those lawsuits, as well as the number of companies who pay up without completing a lawsuit, suggest that there is still a major problem to be dealt with."

So writes the always-thoughtful Mike Masnick at Techdirt.  He is referring here to a newly-published article by John R. Allison, Joshua Walker and Mark Lemley, released as a Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper.  Mike has written frequently about patent trolls—companies that buy up patents from inventors and then make money by litigating or threatening to litigate against potential infringers—and never with much sympathy.

The Stanford Study

I have a less extreme view of patent trolls, about which more in a moment.  First, a few words about the study.

The Allison/Walker/Lemley paper, working with a couple of different databases of patents and litigation involving them, did a number of interesting regressions that revealed some counter-intuitive findings about the current state of patent lawsuits.

The study found that patents litigated most frequently—that is, whose holders bring lawsuits against multiple alleged infringers—are often the least likely to stand up in court.  “Once-litigated patents win in court almost 50% of the time,” the authors found, “while the most-litigated – and putatively most valuable – patents win in court only 10.7% of the time.”

Which is to say that when a patent lawsuit actually goes to trial (few do), the most frequently-asserted patents were nearly always found to be invalid in the first place.  Such patents should never have been granted by the Patent Office, either because they are obvious, non-novel, or otherwise fail to meet the criteria for a patent.  (Invalidity of the patent is a complete defense to a claim of infringement.)

The worst offenders in the study are software patents (see “Bilski:  Justice Stevens’ Last Tilt at the IP Windmills”), which accounted for almost 94% of the most often asserted patents in the study and yet were upheld as valid less than 10% of the time they actually went to trial.

Yet in most cases these patents are asserted against multiple defendants, most of whom pay settlements to avoid the time, expense, and uncertainty of a trial.  That decision, the study suggests, is a mistake.  Defendants who take these cases all the way through trial usually win; that is, they pay nothing.

Well not exactly nothing.  Even a successful litigant must pay the costs of defending her case, and that cost can run into the millions.   (In some situations, the loser must pay the winner’s costs, but under the Patent Act, fee shifting only occurs in “exceptional” cases.)

As the authors note, “It appears that as a society, we are spending a disproportionate amount of time and money litigating a class of weak patents. Our results may also have implications for our models of patent value and of rational behavior in litigation, since it appears we know quite a bit less than we thought about what makes patents valuable.”

Toward a Modest Defense of Trolling

Masnick and others take this study as further evidence—if any was needed—that patent trolls are a drain on society offering absolutely nothing but headaches, interference with innovation, and enormous wastes of money, both from litigants and the taxpayers, who underwrite the court system.  Patent trolls or “Non-Practicing Entities” (NPEs) as the authors call them, win only 9.2% of their lawsuits that go to trial.  (Only about 10%, however, go to trial, and the terms of settlements are kept confidential by both sides.)  Clearly their patents, especially the ones they assert the most frequently, are junk.

(Why would the most frequently-asserted patents be the most likely to fail a validity challenge at trial?  The broader the patent, the easier to assert it against a wide range of potential infringers, and the more likely they will be, given the breadth, to settle.  But at trial the value of a broad claim shifts—what looks scary to a defendant for the same reasons looks most dubious to the trier-of-fact.  Claims that are too broad are rejected, precisely because they represent the grant of a monopoly over too much otherwise productive economic activity.)
As I wrote in “The Laws of Disruption,” I don’t have much sympathy for patent trolls, but I don’t go quite as far as their harshest critics.  Put another way, I’m not sure I share Masnick’s conclusion that the findings of the study lead to the conclusion that “there is a still a major problem to be dealt with,” or in any case that it ought to be dealt with by reforming trolls out of the system altogether.

(For a spirited defense of trolls, see this multi-part posting.  Unfortunately the author never gives his name!)

Why the hesitation?  Even if every patent troll is a low-life individual or entity, and even if nearly all of the patents they assert are ones the patent office should never have granted in the first place, there’s still a positive benefit to society from the existence of patent trolls.

To understand why, consider how a troll becomes a troll.

Patents are granted to inventors, and the intent in giving them a 20-year monopoly on the use of their invention is to provide a market biased in their favor.  They can either commercialize the invention themselves without fear of competition, or sell or license the invention to others to do the same.

Keeping competitors away, albeit for a limited time, gives the inventor the chance to recover their up-front investment in making the invention.  In some cases, inventors toil at their own expense for years before coming up with anything new (if ever), and even then the potential market for their invention may be small or non-existent.

Granting a patent goes against the otherwise free market orientation of capitalist economies, but is thought to be a necessary evil.  If inventors don’t believe they’ll have protected markets, they may not undertake the risk and cost of inventing.  And if they don’t, important inventions may be delayed or lost.  If that happens, everyone loses.  That, in any case, is the theory behind patents.

But a patent troll, by definition, has done no inventing and has no intention of commercializing the inventions they buy.  They simply sue or threaten to sue companies they believe are using the invention (intentionally or, more likely, unintentionally), extracting tribute in the form of forced licenses or other damages.

So what positive role do they play in the system?

Consider how a troll gets a patent in the first place.  In the simplest case, an inventor finds they cannot afford to commercialize their invention, or doesn’t have the risk or managerial profile necessary to try.  Perhaps they try to sell the invention to a company in the industry who can make use of it, or offer to license the invention to several such companies.  The inventor may be rebuffed or ignored or offered a price too low to keep her in the business of inventing.  Maybe the invention isn’t worth the investment already made, or maybe the company fails to evaluate its potential accurately or even at all.

Or maybe the company, knowing that the inventor lacks the resources not only to commercialize but also to protect her invention, takes the chance of ignoring the patent and continues to operate as before, even if that means infringing the patent.

Well, why not?  The inventor’s claim may be no good, or may not cover the company’s behavior.  But even if there is infringement, the road to proving it is long, expensive, and requires a skill set in litigation, negotiation and the substantive law of patents the inventor almost surely doesn’t have and, perhaps, can’t afford to engage.

So as a last resort, the inventor sells the patent to an NPE.  The NPE may buy up many patents, perhaps for related inventions, in the hopes that the combined pool includes at least some that are both valid and cover some unlicensed behavior in industry—or at least that a threat that they do will be credible.  They assert these patents against whatever defendants will most likely be induced to settle, balancing the potential settlements against the probability of incurring the costs of litigation, perhaps all the way to a trial.

As the Stanford paper suggests, in the vast majority of cases the authors studied the asserted patents were in fact junk, at least as determined at trial (judge and jury may have their own biases, of course).  The inventors shouldn’t have gotten anything for them, either from the defendants or from the patent troll, because the patent never should have been granted in the first place.  Again, the trolls may know better than the study suggests the real value of their holdings, and may be betting that the transaction costs of litigation will encourage defendants to settle anyway.

That bet is a game of chicken, for if the defendant chooses to litigate then both sides must absorb heavy litigation costs no matter who wins—the troll bets that the defendant will simply pay them to go away.

Patent trolls may make most of their money, in other words, from arbitraging the inefficiencies and failings of the current patent system.

But even if this is so, there is still value to the system and to society from the existence (if not the individual behaviors) of patent trolls.  For without them, potential defendants have no incentive to deal with inventors who want to sell or license their inventions, even valid ones.  Absent patent trolls, the companies would conclude the inventor can’t litigate regardless of the validity of the claim, a reality the inventor always would know.

Without the existence of patent trolls as a buyer of last resort, there’s no credible threat the inventor can make, and a rational defendant will simply carry on knowing the patent can’t be successfully enforced.  Knowing this set of facts, inventors at the margins may not undertake their research in the first place.

So even if every non-practicing entity is a troll, and even if every troll-asserted patent is garbage, the role in the system played by the existence of trolls is an important one.

Whether it justifies its cost today is another matter, one tied hopelessly to the other weaknesses and dysfunctions of the overall patent system.  Speaking generally, the authors conclude that “it is important to recognize that software patents and patents asserted by NPEs are both taking disproportionate resources in patent litigation, and that the social benefit from those cases appears to be slight.”  But they stop well short of calling for reforms that would eliminate the incentives that keep NPEs in the game.

That caution, for now, seems sensible.


I don’t have a great deal to add to coverage of last week’s big patent story, which concerned the filing of a complaint by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen against major technology companies including Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo. Diane Searcey of The Wall Street Journal, Tom Krazit at CNET, and Mike Masnick on Techdirt pretty much lay out as much as is known so far.

But given the notoriety of the case and the scope of its claims (the Journal, or at least its headline writer, has declared an all-out “patent war”), it seems like a good opportunity to dispel some common myths about the patent system and its discontents.

And then I want to offer one completely unfounded theory about what is really going on that no one yet has suggested. Which is: Paul Allen is out to become the greatest champion that patent reform will ever know.

...continue reading "Paul Allen: When a Patent Troll is an Enigma"