Last week we reported on a filing made by a Microsoft subsidiary in Ireland which provided details of a $136.5 million write down of an investment the company had made in Intellectual Ventures’ Invention Investment Fund 3 (IIF3). The filing also revealed that the software giant was by far the biggest investor in the fund – contributing over 70% of the cash that had been raised.
The write down confirms what we already knew – that the fund is closing and that IV is getting out of the patent acquisitions business. On the patents front, the firm’s focus now is on selling-off many of the patent assets that it currently has and on getting maximum returns from the rest; overall, it looks to be increasing its focus on the creation and spin-out of patent-based operating companies.
Given what has happened in the US over recent years, none of this is a huge surprise. NPEs there have been severely affected by the more hostile litigation and licensing market, as well as the uncertainty over eligibility, and many have looked to pivot as a result. As the biggest NPE of them all, IV was never going to be immune from this.
Meanwhile, what does this news tell us about Microsoft? The usual blogging and Tweeting suspects have been talking about the write down as showing that the company is the facilitator of the world’s biggest patent troll, arming it with a view to going after competitors and everyone else to beat them down to a pulp – or words that effect. However, those who have actually bothered to follow developments at Redmond over recent years will see something different.
IIF3 began its buying activities back in the first half of 2014. It had, therefore, raised the money it needed in advance of that. So, we are talking about a time when Microsoft was under the control of Steve Ballmer and its IP function was being run by Horacio Gutierrez. Now, of course, the company’s CEO is Satya Nadella and the IP group is looked after by Erich Andersen.
In the four years since IIF3 started its acquisition activity, Microsoft has changed fundamentally. Nowhere is that more the case than with IP - and patents, in particular. While once Microsoft’s principle focus was on the generation of big licensing revenues from its patents and fighting hard against all competition, now its approach is to emphasise collaboration and cooperation, and to use patents as a part of wider initiatives, such as Azure, or as elements in win-win deals with companies that might previously have been regarded purely as rivals.
On top of that, of course, those changes to the US patent landscape also make the kind of defensive buying that IV sold as a significant benefit to its corporate investors much less of a pressing need. Don’t forget that Microsoft has also recently decided not to renew its membership of RPX.
The simple fact is that Microsoft no longer needs IV: its IP strategy has changed and it is less exposed to damaging patent assertions than it once was. When the fundamentals change so much for an investor that has a 70%+ stake in an entity of whatever kind, that entity is going to struggle to recover. That is exactly what has happened to IIF3.