Joff Wild

You learn something new every day. I had always thought that Peter Detkin, the vice-chairman and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, coined the term patent troll while he was at Intel in the late 1990s. Certainly, if you do a Google search he gets a lot of credits (try here, here, here and here, for example). However, it turns out that while Detkin played a significant role in the name’s development and diffusion, he was not the inventor. Instead, that honour rightly goes to Anne Gundelfinger, Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Intel; or, perhaps more precisely, to her husband.

Let me explain. I was talking with Anne recently about other things when she mentioned that a couple of years after she joined the company in 1997 she came up with the term for a competition Detkin had organised. Intrigued, I asked her to tell the story. This is how it goes.

Back in the late 1990s, Intel – like a few other high-tech companies – was finding itself the target of a growing number of litigants seeking to assert patents which they owned, but did not practise and had no intention of practising; what’s more, in many cases they had not even filed the patents in question, but had acquired them from third parties. For companies on the receiving end of these suits, it was costly in terms of people time and money, and, quite frankly, it was annoying.

To get the phenomenon greater attention, senior management inside Intel – including Peter Detkin, who led the litigation group – decided that a pithy term or phrase was needed to capture the spirit of what was happening while at the same time avoiding the overly offensive descriptions, such as patent terrorist, that were starting to appear. With the support of, among others, Andy Grove, then Intel’s chairman, and the head of licensing, Ron Epstein, Detkin challenged all the members of the Intel legal team to come up with something suitable. The prize for the winning entry would be a restaurant voucher to cover a dinner for two.

Anne’s Eureka moment came in the spring of 1999 on a highway on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State as she drove to her step-daughter’s high school graduation with husband, Mark Davis (currently an engineer at Google). They were knocking ideas back and forth, and somehow found their way to medieval literature. It was then that Davis hit upon the word troll: the man who hides under the bridge that he has not built to demand a fee from whoever wants to cross. It was perfect and Anne lobbied Detkin and others to that effect. They agreed and she won her dinner.

The rest, of course is history. Patent troll very quickly entered the lexicon and continues to be widely used to this day – although, ironically, it is a term that Intel itself now no longer employs as the company believes that it is too broad and is called upon to describe some mainstream and inoffensive (to them at least) business models.

In the great scheme of things, I suppose, this is not a big story. But why shouldn’t Anne and Mark get the credit they deserve? Whether you like it or not, the term patent troll has proved to be immensely powerful. It is used across the world by media commentators, politicians, attorneys, judges and anyone else who has even a passing interest in IP. Peter Detkin understood the need for an immediately accessible way to describe what Intel and others were up against, he realised Anne had put a winner in front of him and he helped to get patent troll out there and in use. But he did not coin the term. Anne Gundelfinger and Mark Davis did. It would be nice to think that from now on they will get the recognition that is clearly due to them.

STOP PRESS: I received the following note from Peter Detkin about his recollections of how the “patent troll” term was developed at Intel:

Joff – it was interesting to read another account of the birth of the “patent troll”. I had heard the story about the video with the patent troll, but this is the first I’ve heard of Anne’s claims. I *knew* I should have filed for the rights on the phrase a decade ago – would have put the issue to bed… 

My recollection of the events is only slightly different. The competition part is true (I’ve told that story before), but Anne forgets what inspired the competition – the libel suit from Ray Niro (in Illinois state court) after I was quoted in the press calling him a patent extortionist. Barrett (not Grove - he had nothing to do with it) didn’t like having the issue played out in the press, and demanded I come up with a different name [editor's note - Craig Barrett is now chairman of the Intel board, previously he was the company's president and then CEO]. Not sure what Ron Epstein is cited for – he reported to me, but had nothing to do with it (BTW, my title at the time was Vice President, Assistant General Counsel, not Director of Litigation. I was in charge of Licensing, Competition/Antitrust and Patents as well as Litigation at the time).

It is true that discussions I had with Anne led to the final decision, and that I probably gave her the prize (would not have looked good to keep it myself!), but I never heard anything about her “Eureka moment” or discussions with her husband. I recall sitting in my cubicle discussing with her various suggestions that had been made, but remember telling her that I particularly liked the “troll” phrase and I pointed to the blue-haired doll that I had on my desk (that my then-young daughter had left after a visit). We discussed the origins (primarily “Billy Goats Gruff”, at the time one of my daughter’s favorite tales), and I decided to go with it.

BTW, I still have the original troll that was the inspiration (the doll, not Ray Niro) in my office.

Peter D.

So, apologies for getting the names of some of the people involved wrong and for confusing job titles. However, I hope that Peter’s confirmation of Anne Gundelfinger’s role in the development of the “patent troll” term wins her the recognition she deserves; not forgetting her husband, Mike Davis, of course.

Anyway, as I said before, this is not a huge story in the great scheme of things. And it is one that I am now putting to bed.