Tuesdays with T4A: John Amster (03/04/14)

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John Amster
CEO & Co-Founder | RPX Corporation
John is a Co-Founder of RPX Corp., and has been its Chief Executive Officer since March 2010. He served as the General Manager of Strategic Acquisitions and Vice President of Licensing at Intellectual Ventures (IV), responsible for strategic acquisitions of patent portfolios as well as developing the software and e-commerce licensing programs. He also served as Managing Director and founded the M&A Advisory practice for Ocean Tomo. Prior to Ocean Tomo, John served as Vice President and Secretary at InterTrust Technologies, where he worked on intellectual property transactions, merger and acquisition activities, and late-stage financing activities. He started his career as an associate at Weil Gotshal & Manges, where his practice included mergers and acquisitions, equity investments, venture capital financings, intellectual property licensing, and patent litigation.

Where did you grow up, and what do you remember most about it?
I grew up in Westchester County, New York. My fondest memories are of going to upstate New York every weekend to ski with my family. I also remember how cool it was at 12-13 years old to be able to meet friends from all over Westchester and Fairfield County at Grant Central Station and then go see Knicks/Rangers games or concerts at Madison Square Garden, or just explore New York City. In retrospect, I can’t believe our parents allowed us to do that!
What was your first job?
Caddying at Sunnydale Country Club. I had a lot of trouble carrying two golf bags at once…
What is your first political memory?
When I was five or six years old, we had a McGovern fundraiser at our house where Carly Simon came and sang for everyone. It was in the Fall and there was a Snoopy special on, and I fell asleep watching TV and never got to see Carly sing.
What is your favorite book?
Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm are two favorites.
At our TechTables, you often describe RPX as the “good guys in the patent fight.” We all know there are plenty of “bad guys” out there too. In fact, some would say innovation is a dangerous place to be right now! What would your advice be for an aspiring inventor out there who wants to protect his or her IP and avoid litigation?
I think the key advice is to take emotion out of your decision making process. The IP market is frustrating and often seems unfair. You just have to deal with it. If you are an inventor, take an unemotional view of how important your invention is. A patent is not a goal in itself, it is an asset that can help you achieve a goal. In terms of advice for the entrepreneur who is running a business, you may own important IP, but you still need to trust that there are others who have created IP that relates to your business. In the vast majority of situations, you should think about clearing rights to the IP held by your competitors as early as possible. Conventional advice would be to not cross-license your competitors. I would take a different, unemotional view and advise a cross-license to clear rights to a competitor’s IP rather than deal with someone who buys the competitor’s IP in bankruptcy and then sues for infringement. Being transparent with the people you need to do business with is the best way to avoid litigation.
Has RPX discovered the cure for patent trolls: to reduce NPE cost and risk through open-market buying and litigation purchases of high-risk patents and patent rights, and licensing to all member companies? Or is government action (e.g. patent reform) also necessary? What is the number one thing that Congress could pass to reduce NPE cost in the tech community?
In order to solve the problem, both public and private answers are required. In our view, if Congress were to focus on one thing, it would be improving patent quality, mainly through better funding for the PTO to be more effective at screening patent applications. That could reduce the number of patents and take some pressure off of the open market solution that would still be necessary. Necessary because even with improved patent quality there would still be tens of thousands of patents that issue every year. There needs to be an efficient way for companies to proactively clear that risk instead of waiting to be sued. Technology companies will need a market solution that makes it possible for patent risk to become a reasonable and predictable line item in their budgets.
Who is your role model and why?
I’ve got a lot of role models and mentors from a business perspective, including everyone on my board of directors who have given me criticism and encouragement and motivation at all the right times over the last six years. But probably one of the biggest role models I’ve had was a law school professor named Jonathan Oberman, who still devotes his life to ensuring that people who are charged with crimes have quality legal defense. He was an inspiring person.
Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a country. Why do you think that is? What do you think can be done to close that gap?
I think there are two things that are really important to try to fix in all levels of our government. First, the people who go into government make really big sacrifices in order to perform public service, and that’s a great thing, but it also means that a lot of people who have far greater expertise on the areas our government is responsible for feel discouraged from making those same sacrifices and therefore don’t have the proper voice. I think it’s really important to figure out a way to – without the government paying for it, and without the people paying for it by bearing the cost of political attacks – get the people in the private sector to play a more active role and, more importantly, get people in government to seek out domain experts. The second issue has to do with political rhetoric and the media. Someone needs to figure out a way to take rhetoric out of the political debates. It used to be that the media was the objective party that would digest the rhetoric and extract and report just the facts, and we’ve lost some of that. There’s a big opportunity for a third party that can report the facts around the rhetoric, and that could rally the people to focus on the issues as opposed to the way they’re discussed.
As you look at your community, city/state/country, how do you view your role/responsibility as a citizen? Within that context, how do you view your role as citizen in relation to our government and democracy?
I think our role and responsibility is to figure out the answers to the above two issues.

Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
I have very little exposure to this issue, but with my limited anecdotal evidence I think political parties are less relevant mainly because young adults do not seem to have a good understanding of the historical role and context of the party system.

What is your favorite journey?
Steve Perry (aha! –Sam).
If you could be anyone else for a day, who would you be?
My nine-year-old daughter.  She has a great outlook on life.
What is your proudest moment?
I am fortunate to be a husband to a great person and father to three healthy and happy children who make me proud every – or most – days. Professionally, our first fund-raising meeting at Kleiner Perkins stands out. We had a meeting with John Doerr and were told we had an hour but that the meeting would probably last less than thirty minutes. After 90 minutes, the meeting ended and John walked me and my co-founders out to the parking lot. We were still a month or two away from getting funded, but as we were walking out I felt a great deal of simultaneous pride and humility that we were able to get the attention of an icon that had helped so many great companies.
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