On patent law, Mavs owner Mark Cuban knows the score


When two popular Internet utilities get in a high-priced legal fight and a famously outspoken NBA owner jumps in the middle, it's hard not to keep your eye on the roundball — especially on the day  March Madness gets underway

After Yahoo sued Facebook for patent violations earlier this week, Dallas Mavericks boss Mark Cuban took aim at Yahoo and the nation's patent law with a satirical blog post that got picked up by the Huffington Post and is generating a lot of buzz on the web. The j'accuse by Cuban (full disclosure: he's a sometime Sunlight benefactor) against "the explosion of lobbyists pushing the agenda of big patent portfolio holders" got us wondering whether he has a point. 

It's hard to argue with the numbers.

Weighing in at a potential $100 billion worth, if projections on the value of its imminent IPO are to be believed, Facebook hardly qualifies as a corporate "little guy." But when it comes to the Washington influence-playing game, the social networking giant is a mere tadpole. According to Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer, Facebook has spent $1.4 million in lobbying so far while its employees have made $267,800 in campaign donations. Compare that to Yahoo's $18.8 million in lobbying expenditures and $2.2 million in campaign contributions.

The disparity is borne out in larger fights over patents rights, an issue which, along with copyright law, loom increasingly important in a digital age of nonstop innovation.

Last year, Congress overwhelmingly passed the a major patent law overhaul giving rights to an invention to those who file first for the patent, as opposed to those who come up with the idea first. According to MapLight, groups supporting legislation — a who's who of corporate America — provided members of Congress with four times as much in campaign contributions as groups in opposition

Five U.S. companies that registered the most new patents last year together have accounted for more than a half trillion dollars in lobbying expenditures, according to Influence Explorer. Here's a look at who they are and what they've spent to influence Washington. Note that the total expenditures on lobbying cover all the issues they've lobbied on–including health care, taxation, trade, regulation and other areas, not just intellectual property. However, the total figures do show the lobbying footprint a company has in Washington.

Company Lobbying  Campaign donations
IBM $81.8 million $4.2 million
Microsoft $100.6 million $38.6 million
General Electric $257.6 million $29.7 million
Hewlett Packard $24.4 million $8.1 million
Intel $52 million $7.9 million

It's possible the playing field will begin to tilt the other way: In February, Facebook hired the influential Glover Park Group to represent it in Washington, but Glover Park recently dropped Facebook as a client. Earlier this month, Facebook signed on the equally well-wired law firm Steptoe & Johnson to its stable. Among those signed up to lobby for Facebook: former Rep. John Shadegg, an influential conservative powerhouse.

For the moment, however, when it comes to the fight over intellectual property, you don't need an NBA referee or even a startup patent attorney to know what the score is.

(This post has been updated to reflect the Glover Park Group's decision to end its representation of Facebook)