Author Jeff Matsuura on Thomas Jefferson and Patent Trolls

In the old childhood folktales, trolls are big, mean, ugly creatures that live under bridges and exact payments in exchange for allowing travelers to pass.

That, according to Jeff Matsuura, is very similar to how patent trolls operate.

Matsuura is an intellectual property attorney with the Alliance Law Group, based in Falls Church, Va. He’s also the author of the just released book, Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls: A Populist Vision of Intellectual Property Rights, published by the University of Virginia Press.

Here are some of the issues Matsuura discusses in an interview with the ECT News Network Podcast Series:

  • The real meaning of intellectual property
  • The least known, but probably most used intellectual property protection — trade secrets
  • How Thomas Jefferson was a renowned tinkerer and the first patent commissioner of the U.S.
  • Patent trolling in the modern-day world of technology, including a brief look at the Research In Motion case that almost shut down the popular BlackBerry service

According to Matsuura, as a creator of technology modifications, a user of technology, and the first patent commissioner, Thomas Jefferson had a unique perspective on intellectual property. Jefferson’s best work as an inventor was the modification of existing technologies, including the polygraph, which was an early form of the copy machine; the plow and technology related to cryptography.

Even now, 200 years after Jefferson, patent trolling continues.

Matsuura describes modern-day patent trolls as companies that primarily own a portfolio of patents but manufacture or market nothing. They exist primarily to seek out financial compensation from firms that infringe upon their patents.

He also looks at the intellectual property issues revolving around the Scrabulous case and a fast-growing area, the open source software movement.

Finally, Matsuura thinks two big trends in intellectual property will impact technology firms:

  • Companies will find it increasingly difficult to manage their intellectual property rights … and not encroach on others’ rights
  • Businesses operating online will increasingly deal with intellectual property issues and laws in other countries

Listen to the podcast. (22:23 minutes)

Here are some excerpts of the podcast:

E-Commerce Times: Could you give a definition of what intellectual property actually is?

Jeff Matsuura:

The shortest definition of intellectual property includes patents, copyrights, trademarks and effectively trade secrets. It’s the set of laws that protect and allow creators of new material to establish legal rights and to enforce those legal rights. It’s a framework of legal rights protecting original creative work.

ECT: Trade secrets — that one of those ones that are encompassed by intellectual property, may be the least understood or the least well-known. What exactly does that mean?


That’s probably a fair sense, but it’s actually the most widely used form of intellectual property. Essentially, a trade secret can be any piece of knowledge, information, expertise that somebody can get a competitive advantage from by keeping a secret. The fact that I know it and my competitors don’t gives me a competitive advantage. It could be a customer list, it could be a design, it could be essentially anything that you could patent or protect with any other form of intellectual property, but you choose to protect it by basically keeping it secret.

ECT: In a nutshell, give an overview of exactly what Thomas Jefferson’s perspective was on intellectual property?


In my view, and the reason I looked at Jefferson and wrote the book is that in all of American history, he is one of the most exceptionally well-positioned people, I think, to understand and to deal with intellectual property rights. We all think of Jefferson as one of the American founding fathers, and a former president, but we don’t often think of the fact that the man was a world-class scientist, he was an inventor, and he was also, in a fact, the first commissioner of patents of the United States in his capacity as Secretary of State, so he was the first patent commissioner, if you will, of the United States. Jefferson was in this amazingly unique position, I think, of having been the first patent commissioner who was reviewing and granting patent applications. He participated in the drafting of U.S. patent law, he was an inventor, so he understood the process of creating new devices and processes. But he was also a user of other people’s intellectual property, and so what you end up with in my view is kind of a rare position of somebody who wore all the hats, basically, with intellectual property, helping to develop the legal framework then enforcing that framework and also being a person who was an active creator of intellectual property and a user of intellectual property as well.

ECT: I don’t think a lot of people know that Thomas Jefferson was an inventor. So what was some of the technology that he was dealing with in terms of inventing and creating things?


I think the best way to characterize Jefferson was as a tinkerer. Rather than being a person who had some kind of incredibly Earth-shattering invention — single invention — Jefferson was constantly looking at what the latest technological advances were. He’s kind of best known being associated with a couple of technologies. Neither one was a technology that he invented, but each one was one that he substantially improved. One is a device that was known as a “polygraph.” It’s not the kind of polygraph we think of — determining whether or not you’re telling the truth. It was a device that allowed a person to write, and as you were writing a document, another copy would be created.

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