Law, Computer Science, Philanthropy and ABA President-Elect William H. Neukom of Dartmouth Stanford and Microsoft

Mark A. Lemley, mentioned in the previous post, is William H. Neukom Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, occupying a chair endowed in 2002 by William H. Neukom, who also funded a chair in computational science at Dartmouth College.

William H. Neukom is a 1964 graduate of Dartmouth College and graduated from Stanford Law School in 1967.

Early in his career, Neukom joined the Seattle law firm now known as Preston, Gates & Ellis LLP, a pioneering firm in the technology sector. See e.g. the history of the Shidler Center for Law, Information and Technology at the University of Washington School of Law.

In 1985 Neukom became the first attorney for Microsoft Corporation when William H. Gates, Sr., the “Gates” in Preston Gates & Ellis, who happened to be the father of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, asked him if he wanted to represent his son’s young company.

Neukom was subsequently Microsoft’s General Counsel (chief legal officer) for the next nearly two decades and helped to shape what Microsoft is today. In 2002 he rejoined Preston Gates & Ellis from his position as Executive Vice President of Law and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft. At Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, Neukom is the chair of the firm.

Neukom has recently been in the news again as the new President-Elect of the American Bar Association. He will take office in August, 2007.

Neukom is also making a name for himself as a philanthropist. As reported in the print version of the Stanford Law School Annual Report of Giving 2005-2006, Neukom “has committed $20 million for the construction of a new academic building at the [Stanford] Law School“. See also the Stanford Lawyer, Building for the Future by Sharon Driscoll, and Stanford Report.

In 2004, Neukom also committed an approximately equal amount to Dartmouth College, his undergraduate alma mater, for an Institute for Computational Science:

Dartmouth has been known for innovations in computer science, in both application and theory, dating back to the computer’s earliest days. Now, through a generous commitment of $22 million, William H. Neukom, chair of the Seattle law firm Preston Gates & Ellis and the former executive vice president of Law and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft Corporation, will establish an Institute for Computational Science that will continue the college’s legacy of leadership in computing. Neukom is a Dartmouth trustee and a member of the Class of 1964. The commitment, made in honor of his family, is the largest gift in Dartmouth’s history for an academic program.

Neukom’s philanthropy is in line with the same philanthropic spirit we see evidenced in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and conforms to the views of William H. Gates, Sr., who, together with Chuck Collins, has written a book, Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes, whose central theme is that individual wealth is in part a product of investments made by and costs incurred by society and the system as a whole (e.g. educational system, maintenance of the enabling economic system, system-enabled incentives for wealth accumulation, costs incurred in the protection of intellectual property, etc.), so that taxes are a form of societal “return on investment” which are necessary for society to create the very conditions which permit entrepreneurs to accumulate great wealth in the first place.

Interestingly, although there are numerous nay-sayers to that philosophy, it appears to us that it is precisely the very wealthy elements of society – who arguably understand our money system the best – who often have the greatest philanthropic spirit and who, once they have accumulated great wealth, are often the most ready to pump that wealth back into the system. Take a look at this link to Philanthropist at the Wikipedia for examples of what people with really big money have done to repay society for its investment in them. Business Week has a list of the 50 most generous philanthropists.

Patent Law Reform and New Legislation

I just received the Fall 2006 print issue of the Stanford Lawyer which at p. 31 quotes Stanford Law School prof Mark A. Lemley, an intellectual property law expert, in his July 11 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2005:

It is particularly important that Congress act to prevent abuses of the patent system by those who use the patent system not to develop and make products but to squeeze money out of those who do.

Lemley made a similar statement on June 14, 2005 to the Senate Judiciary Committee in their hearings on Patent Law Reform : Injunctions and Damages:

It is particularly important that Congress act to prevent abuses of the patent system by so-called “patent trolls,” who use the patent system not to develop and make products but to squeeze money out of those who do. While there are no reliable statistics on the extent of the troll problem, there is no question that it is a widespread and extremely serious problem in the semiconductor, computer, and telecommunications industries. Large, innovative companies such as Intel and Cisco never have a week go by without threats of suit from a non-manufacturing patent owner claiming rights in technology that the defendants did not copy from the patent owner – usually they’ve never even heard of the patent owner – but instead developed independently. While there is a legitimate role for small and individual inventors who patent their technologies and license their ideas to others, increasingly the patent owners are not contributing ideas at all, but popping up years or even decades later and trying to fit an old patent to a different purpose. Trolls do this because the law permits it, and because it gives them a chance to make a lot of money – under current law, far more money than their technology is worth.

Patent reform needs to deal with these abuses of the system without interfering with the normal, legitimate use of the system to protect and encourage innovation. Doing so requires careful balancing of the interests of patent owners, technology companies, and the public.

One should read all of Lemley’s testimony to get an appreciation for the kinds of reforms that are being discussed for US Patent Law. See also Patently O here and here regarding H.R. 2795: Patent Act of 2005 as well as S. 3818: Patent Reform Act of 2006, bills currently before Congress. Also of interest is the August 21, 206 article by Matthew J. Sag and Kurt W. Rohde, Patent Reform and Differential Impact, Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 925722.