My Day in Prison

This week I spent a day at Wallkill Correctional Facility with Defy Ventures. Defy works with the incarcerated and recently released on job skills, personal development and business formation. 35 of my fellow volunteers provided coaching on personal statements, resumes and business ideas. The participants go through a rigorous screening program then spend many hours over the course of a year working on these skills and more.

It costs $32,000 a year to imprison someone with an average length of time served just over 3 years. The recidivism rate is around 68%. (and please don’t quibble- I know I am mixing time periods and federal/state but the basic facts are close enough not to matter). That puts the cost of incarceration at just under $100,000 per inmate with an expected additional cost of $67,500 for their return trip.

The year-long Defy curriculum is just $500 and while the program is only a few years old and participants are carefully screened, the recidivism rate of graduates is stunningly only 5%. Assuming the same cost of incarceration, the same length of sentence, the Defy creates a net savings of $62,300 (92%)! And of course that doesn’t count the indirect economic benefits of having these men employed, active members of society.

On a pure ROI basis Defy is a massive winner but of course the value of Defy Ventures, and programs like it, goes way beyond economics. In a nation with a weak social safety net and a powerful judicial net, helping people stay out of prison is morally critical.  Every person that stays out of prison becomes a social contributor to his or her community. They hold jobs and some create jobs. Many of them can get back involved with their families and become role models in communities otherwise devoid of positive role models.

Frankly it was very, very sad to see so much talent wearing a prison uniform. I was emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. But I was also tremendously hopeful that at least these Defy students had a better shot at success when they get out.

I teach my kids, and try to live myself, by the creed “You are what you do, not what you say.” The visit to Wallkill was about turning my social justice words into action. If anyone reading this is interested in learning more, volunteering or contributing, please go to Defy’s website or reach out to me. I promise your time and money will be very well spent.

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Patent Reform Helps Plaintiffs, Too

Recently the good people at the Application Developers Alliance offered me a chance to guest blog. Rather than my usual focus on patent trolls I focused on how anyone who cares about a strong patent system- defendants and plaintiffs- should support reform. You can see the original post here, and sign up to be a member (it’s free!).

As the victim of a patent troll that ultimately cost me my small business, I am adamant about the need for patent reform. Most recently I wrote about the need for reform in the New York Business Journal.  Afterward I received emails and messages from small inventors, concerned that reform will hinder their efforts to win in court.

From a distance the legislation being considered looks “pro-defendant,” and the false rhetoric put out by trolls and their enablers is confusing. As a small inventor, I understand that changing the rules is scary. But in reality, the House and Senate reform bills are bad for trolls and good for every legitimate patent holder who wants to enforce their hard-earned patents.

The legislation in the House and Senate removes the incentives for frivolous lawsuits. The result will be lower litigation costs for everyone—troll victims and legitimate plaintiffs alike.

First, patent troll cases are clogging the courts making the road to justice longer for everyone. If you are a small inventor you’ll get in front of a judge or a jury much faster without the thousands of troll cases blocking your way.

Second, if you have a legitimate case you’ll be protected from the drag-it-out, drive-it-up tactics of deep-pocketed infringers. Defendants can use unlimited discovery and other motions just as easily as plaintiff trolls.

Third, these bills give you a clear shot at getting your patents confirmed. This is big for legitimate patent holders and terrifying for trolls. Patents that cover real innovation can be reviewed and upheld fast, clearing the way for settlements that make sense. Opponents of reform argue that fee-shifting and bonding provisions will harm small businesses. This is false—a lie told to scare small inventors into advocating against reform that will help improve the system for everyone. The reform bills in the House and Senate take somewhat different angles but agree the standard should be that fees can only be shifted if the case was not “objectively reasonable and substantially justified.” Trust me, no small business is wasting their money and time with a lawsuit so frivolous as to be considered unreasonable.  And there is no bonding provision or any requirement for plaintiffs to demonstrate their ability to pay cash before bringing a lawsuit. This is complete misinformation. These provisions will protect small plaintiffs, while changing the calculus for trolls bringing frivolous lawsuits.

The Innovation Act and the Protecting American Talent and Entrepreneurship (PATENT) Act, in the House and the Senate respectively, will rebalance the asymmetries in the patent system that allow trolls to exploit it, while protecting the rights of legitimate patent holders.  Both bills require greater specificity in complaints, modify discovery, protect end users, and make plaintiffs who bring frivolous lawsuits pay the legal fees of the prevailing party.

Most critically, the current system makes us all hugely vulnerable to troll attacks. Trolls don’t care that you own a patent. They don’t care about justice. They just care that defending yourself is more expensive than settling. Your patent won’t do you any good until you get it in front of a judge and jury. That can easily cost you more than a million dollars.

The result of legislative reforms will be a better functioning patent system for all businesses.  Trolls that assert weak patents are devaluing all patents, including legitimate patents held by inventors and small businesses. Companies that are frequent targets for patent trolls may ignore smaller legitimate licensors merely because they are lost in the deluge of frivolous license demands and lawsuits.  With fewer bad actors poisoning the system, inventors, startups, and all legitimate patent holders have faster access to justice at lower cost while being protected from frivolous suits brought by trolls.

Change can be scary but it is far, far less scary than the situation we all face today. The facts are clear: reform helps all legitimate patent holders and hurts trolls.  Plaintiffs and defendants should be united in this effort. No matter which side you’re on, reform makes us all winners.

Remembering AOL, You Ungrateful Punks

Fruit flies live longer than human memory. It is in our nature to focus on the here and now, not the there and then. This is doubly so in the tech world. It is literally our job to create obsolescence. So it is easy to forget the importance of tech companies that have come before us. What a shame. We all grow from the seeds of harvests past.

The consumer internet as we know it was built on the back of a small handful of companies. Without question one of those is AOL. Simply put AOL was the way people around the world accessed the internet. At it’s peak, AOL had 27 million subscribers, dialing up to discover content, connect with friends, shop. It was as ubiquitous then as Facebook is now, probably more so. AOL’s 2000 merger with Time Warner was valued at $350B. In today’s dollars that is the equivalent of Comcast and Google combined. You can fit Uber’s latest paper valuation inside that actual deal 10 times.

AOL is now being acquired by Verizon for $4.4B. It will probably be chopped up for parts; AOL will go the way of the Roman Empire. A powerful legacy that is so complete it is easy to overlook. Sadly instead of an Irish wake there’ll be snark, lots of people will say it’s about time. Ungrateful punks. AOL turned hundreds of millions of people on to the web. The entire industry is the beneficiary of that success. Steve Case invested his billions in new generations of startups. Ted Leonsis financed the transformation of downtown DC. Now that’s a legacy.

We should spend less time on the arbitrary unicorn club and remember businesses that were transformational for more than their arbitrary, ephemeral paper valuation. Tonight I am going to drink good scotch and rest my glass on my vintage AOL CD coasters. Thanks, AOL. We owe you.

 

Is New York Dead? My Response to an Asinine Quora Post.

banksy-rat-nyc

New York is so alive we took the 80’s drug epidemic and spit out Basquiat, Koons, Maplethorpe, Sherman, and Haring. Michael Bloomberg’s second biggest accomplishment was being Mayor. Bernie Williams won four World Series with he Yankees AND was nominated for a Grammy. When Russian oligarchs want to stash their loot they buy an apartment here. An apartment! Want to take your startup public? Try listing on the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Miami would fit inside Staten Island with room to spare.

More than 30% of us were born overseas and more than 800 languages are spoken here. When the polling firm Harris Interactive asks Americans “If you could live in any city in the country except the one you live in now, which city would you choose?” New York City has been #1 for 12  years in a row.  When people say “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere”, they ain’t talking about Paris.

Does this sound dead to you? Does it? Maybe, my friend, the right question is not “what does that mean”, but “who the fuck wants to know?”

 

Original on Quora