In previous articles we’ve asked why Mapbox, a company with no discernible experience, expertise or knowledge with or about the patent system, would be invited to testify before Congress on the question of patent reforms. Mapbox staffer Tom Lee testified that Mapbox has patent applications pending, but we’ve been able to find none and inquiries to the company about applications were unanswered. Lee also testified that the company has experience with patent litigation, but the truth according to the Lex Machina database is that Mapbox has been sued only one time and managed to quickly — within a matter of three months — successfully extract themselves from that patent litigation. There are clearly many thousands of companies both large and small with far greater experience and in a far better position to advise Congress on the issue of patent reform. So why Mapbox?
As is so frequently the case whenever business and politics intersect, follow the money! We have done just that and we’ve found that a no-name, no-experience company like Mapbox, without any patent applications and no patent litigation experience became thrust into the public debate over patents because all the money people behind Mapbox are card carrying members of the anti-patent efficient infringer lobby.
“It’s only thanks to a strongly anti-troll board and executive leadership that I’m able to be here today,” Mapbox’s Lee offered in his testimony on the July 13th hearing on U.S. patent reform held by the House IP Subcommittee.
So who makes up the board of directors at Mapbox? One member of the Mapbox board is Ryan McIntyre, the managing director of Foundry Group, a Boulder, CO-based venture capital firm with a focus on making early-stage technology investments. Foundry is listed among Mapbox’s investor. The bottom of the Mapbox board of directors webpage includes a quote from Brad Feld, the co-founder of Foundry. In April 2006, Feld published a post on his personal blog in which he called for the abolition of all software patents over supposed expenses to the patent system. For years, Feld and Foundry have been lobbying on behalf of infringers at the detriment of patent owners in the sector.
Another member of the Mapbox board of directors is Randy Glein, managing director at DFJ Growth, a Menlo Park, CA-based venture capital firm focused on providing late-stage investment. Randy Glein was one of dozens of signatories to a letter addressed in March 2015 to members of the U.S. Congress asking for a legislative response to deal with “patent trolls” including increased transparency in demand letters, limits to the scope of discovery and protections for technology end-users. Feld is also a signatory to this letter. Glein’s investment activities have included SpaceX and Tesla, companies which are overseen by Elon Musk, one of Silicon Valley’s strongest personalities who has in no uncertain terms made his own anti-patent views very public.
Next on the Mapbox board of directors is Ira Ehrenpreis, founder and managing director of San Francisco-based venture capital firm DBL Partners. Like Glein, Ehrenpreis has a history of investing into companies run by Musk, including Tesla and SpaceX. Ehrenpreis has a powerful profile in the venture capital world having served on the board and executive committee of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) and also served as the chairman of the 2010 NVCA Annual Meeting. Along with serving on the Mapbox board, Ehrenpreis also serves on the board of directors for Tesla, putting him in close enough contact with Musk to assume that some of his anti-patent views may well have rubbed off on Ehrenpreis.
Upon closer review, Mapbox’s board of directors doesn’t look like it has anti-troll sentiments. It appears as though the board very likely has anti-patent viewpoints, which it has been able to dress up with baseless claims of abusive litigation in order to present a wolf in sheep’s clothing to Congress.
Looking beyond the membership of Mapbox’s board of directors, there is even more information to glean from the company’s investors which starts to clear up why a company with such limited experience in patent-related matters would be allowed to send a representative to stump for anti-patent owner policies. There is an obvious proximity to power regarding the Pritzker Group, the Chicago-based venture capital firm founded by J.B. Pritzker, a national co-chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. J.B.’s sister Penny Pritzker served as the 38th U.S. Secretary of Commerce under former President Barack Obama.
And yet, Tom Lee of Mapbox did not appear before the House IP Subcommittee during the Obama Administration or under the presidential term of any Democrat; his attempts to obfuscate the Congressional debate on patent reform come during the administration of President Donald Trump. It’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have the majority in Congress and Mapbox’s Lee tells a story which is easily accepted by the likes of Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), himself a patent troll and a well-paid ally of the efficient infringer lobby. Any ties between Mapbox and the Trump family, therefore, would start to make the President look complicit in the degradation of patent rights despite promises on the campaign trail that he would be pro-inventor.
Another one of the firms investing in Mapbox is New York City-based media and Internet investment group Thrive Capital. The founder and managing partner of Thrive is Josh Kushner, the brother of Jared Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law.
In July, The Wall Street Journal published an article reporting on the appearance of public sector software firm OpenGov’s CEO Zachary Bookman as part of a tech council, which met with President Trump in June. In questioning how Bookman was the only CEO of a tech startup with a valuation much lower than others getting a seat at the President’s table, the article notes that Josh Kushner’s Thrive is an investor in OpenGov. The Wall Street Journal also quoted Kevin Merritt, founder of OpenGov rival firm Socrata, as pointing out that OpenGov did not have any software initiatives for the federal government, making it odd that OpenGov’s viewpoints on federal tech policy would be all that valued by the President. Online business research site Crunchbase shows that Thrive is a Series B investor in Mapbox.
It is truly discouraging to realize that, despite a perceived sea change in the American political climate, it appears to be business as usual in D.C., at least in terms of attacks on the U.S. patent system from either side of the political aisle. Mapbox, a company which seems to be very anti-patent, benefits from its close ties to political power to the tune of its ability to impact the overall patent reform debate with incredibly questionable testimony and absolutely no experience on the topic. As long as those with no legitimate experience who are on a crusade are allowed to testifying in front of Congress on patent reform the U.S. will continue to see patent rights erode and the economy suffer.