Owners and buyers are frequently out of sync w/ investors.Valuations that are either too high or low underscore the need to provide more bracketed price scenarios when it comes to selling a patent portfolio. The frequent disconnect between seller, appraiser and buyer suggests a more flexible approach might be needed that anticipates a variety of conditions, contexts, types of buyers, and possible deployments.
Under the best of circumstances, providing an accurate patent valuation is difficult. Valuations typically are conducted for litigation purposes, licensing, taxes and M&A. A cash flow model applied to patents that are already licensed may not help much. Encumbrances or prior licensing agreements can make these patents less valuable to a new owner. So can an inability to enforce agreements. (Kodak says its patents have generated more than $3B in licensing revenues since 2001.)
Buying and selling whole portfolios is a relatively new phenomenon. Patents are a veritable moving target, with the price of portfolio and individual rights in constant flux. A buyer’s perceived level of need plays a significant role in driving price, not abstract reasoning from accountants or Ph.D.’s. How one or more specific buyers plan to use a particular group of assets will help determine the price it eventually sells for, as well as perceived need, cash position, strength of their current patent coverage, etc.
Reasons for Buying
Large operating companies often buy for strategic (defensive) reasons, i.e. for leverage to counter-balance a potential enforcement against them. A few have started to think about also acquiring patents for their revenue-generating potential. The Rockstar Consortium may have been formed for defensive leverage in mind, but it is clearly in the licensing business. Based on what Apple contributed to the Nortel purchase price, $2.6B, it appears to own 58% of Rockstar. It likely would like more than a strategic ROI.
Sometimes keeping patents out of the hands of a competitor or competitors is sufficient value to pay a premium to market, especially if the buyer already has a lot of cash and is conducting less R&D that it might. This may have been the motivation behind Google’s $12.5B acquisition of Motorola Mobility and its some 17,000 patents and 6,000 patent applications.
Was Google certain about what it wanted to do with the MMI and its portfolio before purchase? Who knows? Given Google’s cash position and probably need it was not likely to overpay at any price. Foremost, the purchase kept the assets out of the hands of companies who could possibly harm them. (Apple, Microsoft, etc.) After losing out on the Nortel patents the company’s strategy likely changed, as did its willingness to pay a premium to acquire the next “essential” portfolio. There is no disputing that with the MMI purchase Google went overnight from patent have-not to a serious player. (My mother used to say, “rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.”)
Valuations can under-estimate as well as over-estimate price. Here are some recent patent valuations and sale prices or offers:
- Kodak, $2.21B – $2.57B – CNET auction bids to date, $150M-$250M
(Valuation by 284 Partners)
- AOL, $290M + $1.1B – Sale to MSFT for $1.1 B (and in turn to Facebook $550M)
(Valuation by M-CAM and MDB Capital)
- Nortel, (Stalking Horse minimum bid by Google, $900M) – Sale price $4.5B to Rockstar Consortium
(Apple, ($2.6 B), Microsoft, Ericsson ($340M), Sony, RIM ($770M), EMC)
- Motorola Mobility $7.9B market value
(Google paid $12.5B, a 63% premium per share over its stock price, largely for its 17K patents and 6K applications )
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More the Exception Than the Rule
While patent valuation is far from merely throwing darts, it is very difficult to come up with a number for what a buyer will pay for a group of rights at a given time. One could say hitting the sales price target, today, is more the exception than the rule.
If Wall Street and retail investors are to take patent portfolios and transactions seriously, more standardization of terms and methodology will help. There at least needs to be a common vocabulary in discussing patent attributes and possible impediments. Best-case scenarios are not typical. (Perhaps patent valuations should come with a glossary of terms and conditions?) At a minimum, the source of the valuation (paid private firm, investment banking firm, independent appraiser) should be made clear.
In real estate, where there is almost always well-defined body of comparables, mis-targeting the final selling price by much more than 10% is rarely acceptable. For now, missing the final selling price of a patent portfolio by 100% or more is. This does not a market make. Worst of all, it confuses those investors who attempt to make rational stock decisions based on the opinion of valuation professionals. What inventors fail to remember is that intangible assets are much less predictable, and so are their buyers.
Nice-to-Have vs. Need-to-Have
Valuing for litigation damages has always been more art than science. Still, each side has its expert and the court may have one, too. Triangulation often is the result, and it can work in a damages scenario where compromise is acceptable to both parties. Competitive bidding is wonderful for some sellers, but it is only occasionally a realistic option. Nice-to-have patents are one price; need-to-have another; litigation quality still another. Some but not all of this is in the eye of the beholder. Lest we forget, patent valuations for the purpose of a sale may have more to do with goosing the stock price and enhancing the anticipated offer than establishing a true selling price. For now, surprises in on the high or low end are likely remain the norm. The most useful patent valuations will anticipate the unexpected.