Keith Raniere’s NXIVM “Sex Cult” Was Patent Pending


In April, an odd wrinkle complicated the already odd story of NXIVM, the “Executive Success Program” in upstate New York that bills itself as a self-help consortium, but has telltale elements of cults and multi-level marketing schemes. The New York State licensing board charged Brandon Porter, an Albany-based doctor, for moral unfitness to practice medicine, negligence, gross incompetence, and more. He had administered something called a “fright study,” per a complaint filed by Jennifer Kobelt, a former NXIVM member, who claimed he showed her graphic content from films like the curb-stomping scene from American History X and the gang-rape scene from The Accused. The “study” culminated in ostensibly authentic footage of men dismembering four women with machetes. He allegedly filmed her reaction, all without her informed consent. Kobelt estimated Dr. Porter subjected “as many as 100” to the test (Dr. Porter’s lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment). His hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, June 27.

While shocking, the methodology of those alleged “fright studies” have been available through a quick Google search for years. A patent filed in 2007 described, in almost unnecessarily specific detail, how “the Luciferian can be rehabilitated”: show a subject videos of gruesome things—snuff films, dismemberment, worse—and monitor how they react. A “Luciferian” is NXIVM’s preferred term for a type of sociopath, one with “severe behavioral problems that are masked by good psychological adjustment,” who, as described in the patent, “typically experiences pleasure or gratification in situations where ‘normal’ people would be repulsed or disturbed.” One former member speaking on condition of anonymity learned about such a person in a course called “the Fall” (as Lucifer took “the fall” in Milton’s Paradise Lost). She said they were meant to understand those who had left the organization as Luciferians, lost people for whom bad feels good, and good feels bad.

The patent, officially titled “Determination of whether a Luciferian can be rehabilitated,” last amended in 2013, is still pending. Written in precise, elaborate language, with 17 figures illustrating the process, it is one of many patents filed by Keith Raniere, the recently indicted founder of NXIVM.

A self-proclaimed genius, Raniere tried to convey an air of intelligence and infallibility, and for many, it worked. In interviews, former devotees recalled being persuaded by his clear vision of the world and apparent intellect and were told he spent much of his days inventing. His patents, which range from a simple “find my iPhone”-type device to a sleep-guidance system, played a subtle, but vital role in NXIVM. For an aspiring movement leader aiming to build credibility, they were fundamental building blocks.

The tenets of NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um), and its women’s empowerment offshoot Jness (pronounced juh-ness), can be difficult to hold in one’s head all at once, in part because, like Scientology and multi-level marketing schemes, it subjected members to different dogma depending on their level of involvement. Prior to Raniere’s arrest in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in March, and the arrest of his alleged lieutenant and main recruiter, actress Allison Mack, a month later, members had started coming forward with difficult (alleged) stories to tell—like how a doctor branded women with Raniere and Mack’s initials and recruits played “slaves” to their “masters.” Raniere and Mack are both awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges (both have pleaded not guilty, and one of Raniere’s lawyers, Paul DerOhannesian, told Vanity Fair, “Many independent, smart, curious adult women participated in a search for happiness, fulfillment, and meaning exercising the freedom of choice enjoyed by every United States citizen. The prosecution advances an adventuresome legal theory without precedent to assert the emotionally charged crime of ‘sex-trafficking.’” His lawyer Marc Agnifilo added, “Mr. Raniere will fight these groundless charges and will prevail.” He could not comment on the patents.).

As more layers are peeled away from the decades-old organization, the convictions of its founder have become the subject of increasing speculation and reporting. But the patent applications that Raniere has filed since 2000 have been available on Google through much of the group’s existence. They open up a window into the mind of the man the group called “Vanguard,” a man who used the dry bureaucracy of the patent and trademark system to build a theater of expertise and authority for his followers.

“Rational Inquiry,” the behavioral therapy at the center of NXIVM’s public-facing work, is almost always described as a “patent-pending technology” in company literature. Raniere’s bio says he has “147 international patents, including 47 in the United States, in a variety of technical fields.” The claim is debatable. V.F. found about 40 U.S. applications, a little over half of which were granted (applications aren’t made public until after 18 months, so it’s possible he had more to come). Yet this stat comes first in his list of credentials, before his degrees or his books. Not all of them are Luciferian rehabilitation instructionals. In fact, most seem benign, if baffling, like the “Sleep guidance system and related methods” or “Apparatus and method for preventing a vehicle from running out of fuel.” Taken together, the patents are meant to convey that we have a great intellect—and a benevolent one—on our hands.

One former member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that patents were “always a conversational piece” among members. They “were touted all the time as, not just what is he working on, but why is he great and why is he so amazing. He’s so humanitarian that he’s building all of these things to help the world.” She gave the example of a type of splint or cast which he developed after hearing a member’s parent had broken a leg, the “Combination wound and injury treatment apparatus.”

“You hear that and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, not only is he one of the smartest people in the world, he’s using that for good, and in such a diverse field,’” she said. “To hear that he’s helped someone’s parent he knows because he wanted to out of the goodness of his heart? . . . It made me think of him even more altruistically and made me think of him as just someone who devotes his thoughts and energy towards individuals, whether they ask or not. He just knows that they need help, so he does.”

He filed the patent for the special cast in 2013 and it’s still pending, but that didn’t matter to members. “Patent pending” was a phrase bandied about by those in NXIVM’s highest ranks, and the former follower recalled that it was placed at the bottom of many of the E.S.P. curriculum sheets. She explained, “We took [it] to mean that patent is in effect, he has been proven, this is his invention, you know?” But “patent pending” is an oft-misunderstood concept in the public, not just among NXIVM members; the phrase simply means the patent is in review. Virtually anyone with some know-how of the system can file an application that’s deemed “patent pending.” But even when the U.S.P.T.O. granted patents to Raniere for his inventions (which they did for over 20), it shouldn’t necessarily be considered proof of brilliance, according to Daniel Nazer, attorney and Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Nazer said, “If your whole shtick is going around and convincing people that you’re this genius, then the patent system is a way to buttress that. Because [the United States Patent and Trademark Office] will hand out nonsense to people like Keith Raniere.”

It’s Nazer’s job to be skeptical of the patent system in the U.S., and specifically of people like Raniere, who shares some qualities with so-called “patent trolls”—that is, people who file for patents so broad and obvious that they can collect licensing fees on technology that is essential to building other products (and also sue for violation). A classic patent troll typically won’t create the designs he owns. Raniere’s behavior fits the patent-troll pattern only in part. He has sued before, and he went big, going after Microsoft and AT&T with a claim that he invented a type of teleconferencing tech. He lost after he couldn’t prove that he owned the patent. Just this past April, a federal court ordered for him to pay nearly $450,000 in legal fees to the companies.

More often, though, the patents buoyed offshoot businesses that Raniere revealed at Vanguard Week, NXIVM’s weeklong celebration around Raniere’s birthday, like Steve Jobs at a Macworld conference. Raniere, for example, is the inventor listed on a patent for a supposed step-by-step process for evaluating bias in news. It’s called “Rating a level of journalistic distortion in news media content. The patent’s corporate owner is the NXIVM-adjacent business, The Knife, L.L.C., a subscription-based Web site that rates news bias. Its analysts, most of whom are NXIVM members, pay for training courses in order to learn the company’s “proprietary methodology” for evaluating news. This patent is also pending, but see the site featured last year on Fox & Friends here.

Nazer theorized that Raniere was able to get as many patent applications granted as he did thanks to a tireless back-and-forth with the U.S.P.T.O. It’s “really a sign of how lopsided the system is,” Nazer said. “You get endless do-overs. . . . If you’re an applicant, the only way for your application to end is if you give up. You can always amend the claims and try again.”

It appears that’s exactly what Raniere did. One former member who asked to be referred to as Nicole recalled Nancy Salzman, NXIVM’s president, explaining that Raniere spent much of his day inventing. “‘Oh yeah, we went to the patent lawyer office today,’” she would say to those curious about Raniere. “‘He brought him more ideas and the patent lawyer got him to sign more papers.’ They made it sound like he was there quite often.”

The history of many of Raniere’s patents, including the one about rehabilitating the Luciferian, involve multiple edits over many years, meaning that he had a relatively sophisticated approach, one aided by lawyers, time, and resources. One example, the “Method Apparatus for Improving Performance,” is apparently a way of increasing performance on a treadmill by increasing speed over time. Laymen might recognize this approach as “exercise.” “The examiner, in this case, literally rejected it six times. [Raniere] just [keeps] coming back,” Nazer said. “My opinion, having reviewed the prosecution history, is that if you just play that game for long enough, you can eventually get a patent, even when the underlying application is just a pile of garbage.” The U.S.P.T.O. granted that one in 2016.

The sashes that made an appearance in a recent New York Times magazine story about the group were also patent-protected designs, though the grant has expired. The fabric was used to indicate both a “higher state of self-awareness” and a member’s success in recruiting new members. But why go through such an effort to continually amend and file, amend and file, to get a design patent for something like a sash? “It actually is an attractive nuisance for people with really inflated senses of their own brilliance, in that, you can get a patent even if it’s something completely dumb, like this Method Apparatus for Improving Performance,” Nazer said. “Then, you can wave it around and tell people, ‘Oh, you have patents,’ as if that’s some sign that you’re brilliant.”

Jeff Trexler, lawyer and associate director of the Fashion Law Institute, puts it another way. “Let’s strip it down to the basics. He’s just a guy, alright? He’s just a guy. You have to think about how you’re going to accumulate authority when you don’t have an authority structure giving it to you.”

Trexler, who also received a PhD in American Religious History from Duke University, was struck by an overlap in Raniere’s patent habits with those of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. “What L. Ron Hubbard realized—and what Keith realized—is that when you accumulate patents you’re not just accumulating assets,” Trexler said. “It’s a rhetorical move. It’s a way of saying, ‘Look, [the] United States government has looked at me and says that I am an original thinker, I’m a scientific thinker, I am authority. You need to believe me.’”

Hubbard was not as extensively familiar with the patent office as Raniere, but it was an early interest. In 1966, the E-Meter, the device Scientologists use in auditing, the organization’s question-and-answer sessions that promises to deliver some kind of spiritual relief, was patented. Scientology is recognized as a religion in the U.S., while NXIVM is not, and literature on the Scientology site makes it clear that the E-meter is intended as a “religious artifact used as a spiritual guide in auditing.”

Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, holds a now-expired patent for a lavalier microphone assembly, and Raniere went through an audio phase, applying for “System for videotaping and recording a musical group” (granted) and “Method and device for analyzing resonance” (pending) and “Method on indexing a recordable event from a video recording and searching a database of recordable events on a hard drive of a computer for a recordable event” (pending).

NXIVM reportedly attempted to attract co-eds with A Cappella Innovations, a festival for college-student groups held in Albany, New York, near NXIVM’s home base. It dispatched recruiters including Mack to M.C. The attempt was unsuccessful, a former member told T.H.R. College kids were too wary.

While NXIVM has not become the next Scientology in terms of scale, the groups have some common threads: the levels within the organization; the appeal to celebrity. For its part, Scientology said through a spokesperson that there’s “no connection or similarity between the Scientology religion and the NXIVM group. This notion was invented by the media to garner headlines and create controversy. Unfortunately this race for clickbait is done at the expense of members of our religion. Stories you have seen in the media which make this comparison are simply propaganda and have no basis in fact.”

Raniere did borrow some terms from Scientology like “suppressives,” or those who impede progress up the doctrine ladder. Its higher-ups allegedly wanted to replicate Scientology’s outreach tactics, and tried to streamline the marketing so it was “cool,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The improbably named Rick Ross, the “cult de-programmer” who has been tracking Raniere for years, told T.H.R., “[Mack] was the Tom Cruise of NXIVM.”

“The problem is when there are a lot of people trying to do this and not all of them have the same talent level. L. Ron Hubbard was a master. I mean, he was really good at what he did. This organization has lived and continues to grow well after his death,” Trexler said, saying that Raniere is more of a failed multi-level marketer, rather than a movement maker. “[NXIVM] is like the Amway of sex,” he joked.

Of the many moving parts in NXIVM’s story, one thing stands out: Raniere untethered himself from potential money trails associated with the organization. Nancy Salzman, NXIVM’s president, owns the company; Raniere told the Times that he didn’t pay taxes, that on paper he lived below the poverty line; he said he didn’t even know where the shirt he was wearing came from. But his patent paper trail is extensive. Ex-member “Nicole” had never read the patents before, but they didn’t surprise her. “He’s really all about tracking and being very diligent and specific. All of NXIVM was,” she said. “This just makes sense that he [filed so many]. He wanted to prove to the world something. It was important that he was seen as a scientist.”

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