Bialystock (reading adaptation of Kafka’s
Metamorphosis while looking for worst play ever written):
"Gregor Samsa awoke one morning
to discover that he had been transformed
into a giant cockroach..." (Pauses.) Nah, it's too good.
—The Producers (1968)
Do you want a measure of The Great Stagnation in Localization Land? The mosquito-infested backwater of language technology now has its very own patent troll! Yes! Transperfect’s purchase of WorldLingo has nothing to do with the acquiree’s technology (which is probably commoditized anyway). According to David Grunwald, the bold merger is a tactic by Transperfect to seize WorldLingo’s patents and then use them in ongoing litigation against a competitor in the field of localizing websites for large corporates. In other words, Transperfect is becoming a patent troll.
What is a patent troll, you ask? To phrase it in the style of Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, it is the bloodcurling sound of the technology industry eating its young. The issue was brought to mainstream attention by a recent podcast from the teams of This American Life and Planet Money (When Patents Attack). (By the way, have I recommended This American Life? Did I mention it’s free?) To put it succinctly, a patent troll is a company that buys up reams of patents from other companies and then uses them to sue innovative start-ups. The objective is simply to extort money. There are entire companies in Silicon Valley that do not create anything but simply snap up legacy patents and use them as part of a tech version of racketeering (“that’s a really nice technology company you have there; it’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it…”). And guess who is the largest patent troll in the Valley? None other than Nathan Myhrvold. And who is Nathan Myhrvold? None other than one of the co-founders of Microsoft. Great Stagnation, Exhibit A: “Thy name is Myhrvold.”
What is wrong with that, you ask? Patents, after all, were invented to protect the work of the inventors who make our lives better. Well, the problem is that in the IT sphere the idea of a patent is problematic. One example is the idea of using the Internet to distribute a piece of software via downloading. The software itself, of course, should have a copyright. That is not the issue. The idea of downloading software via the Web in general, well… not so much. And American judges and the U.S. Patent Office until twenty years ago were inclined to this common-sense view of technology: The hurdles to get an IT patent were many and difficult to leap over. That is, until the tide started shifting in the 1990s. And now you basically can’t move a single inch in Silicon Valley without stepping on a the tails of companies holding reams of useless patents, whether for offensive or preemptive purposes. Indeed, one of the causes for Tyler Cowen’s innovation slowdown may well be the peculiarities of patent-trolling and the U.S. legal system.
What does that mean for the translation industry? This means that Transperfect is probably planning to use a patent that describes in vague terms a system that employs, say, machine translation, translation memory and terminology management over the Web. None of these ideas by themselves is original. You didn’t need a genius to come along and “invent” the idea of using computers to translate text. Or of recycling previous translations. Or of using the Web to harness the power of the hamster mob. But (wham!) Transperfect is going to leverage those dead patents to hit a competitor.
Just more proof of the vibrancy of the translation technology niche.
Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.