The term “patent troll” conjures up all kinds of images and ideas, but what is a patent troll? Unfortunately, there is really no universally accepted definition of what a patent troll is, although if you are getting sued for patent infringement by a non-practicing entity, you probably think you are being sued by a patent troll.
My view has long been that companies that complain about patent trolls don’t really want them to go away. Patent trolls are extremely valuable to these big tech companies because they are an identifiable and unsympathetic villain, even if they cannot really be defined in any satisfying way. The image of a patent troll can be paraded about Capitol Hill whenever patent reform is being pushed, or even in front of the Supreme Court, which increasingly seems to be interested in taking them into consideration when reaching decisions, despite them not being involved in the case.
I personally hate the term patent troll, which may come as a shock to many because I use it all the time. I use it to attempt to crystalize the issue, because the term “patent troll” has over time become synonymous with “non-practicing entity,” and not all non-practicing entities are bad. In fact, many are good actors that diligently work against long odds to research and develop new technologies, treatments, drugs and therapies we all want.
I have absolutely no problem with enforcing patent rights, and frankly I don’t think it should matter how the patents were acquired, but there is something exceptionally seedy about the use of shell companies going after competitors, or large tech companies selling to known patent trolls. They complain about the troll problem in the halls of Congress on the one hand, but use them to their advantage on the other hand.
The question should be whether there is infringement of a solid patent. If there is a solid patent and there is infringement, then there should be recourse, period. Having said that, it would be naive to pretend that there is not real evil lurking in the patent infringement realm. Stories of $500 to $1,000 offers to settle and avoid patent infringement litigation that would cost millions of dollars to defend abound. False and misleading demand letters prey on unsophisticated businesses.
The term “patent troll” conjures up all kinds of images and ideas, but there is no universally accepted definition of who is a patent troll. This has led many to recognize that, by and large, if you are being sued for patent infringement, it will likely be your belief that you are being sued by a patent troll. But obviously not everyone who sues for patent infringement is a patent troll, and neither is every plaintiff who loses a patent infringement lawsuit. There will be reasonable assertions that ultimately result in a defendant prevailing for a variety of reasons. Thus, a patent troll really should be identified by litigation tactics. A patent troll is one who is abusing the judicial process and leveraging judicial inefficiencies to obtain unwarranted settlement payments.
In determining whether one is a patent troll, I don’t think it should matter how the patents were acquired. If there is infringement of substantial patents, then there should be recourse. Having said that, it would be naive to pretend that there is not real evil lurking in the patent infringement realm. Stories of $500 to $1,000 offers to settle and avoid patent infringement litigation that would cost millions of dollars to defend abound. Some courts have openly acknowledged what feels like “extortion-like” activity. See Indicia of Extortion and Troll Turning Point?
The term “patent troll” conjures up all kinds of images and ideas, but what is a patent troll? Unfortunately, there is really no universally accepted definition of what a patent troll is, which has lead myself and others to recognize that, by and large, if you are being sued for patent infringement, it is your belief that you are being sued by a patent troll. Sadly, who is and who is not a patent troll is largely in the eye of the beholder.
Still, we are not without at least some recognized industry definition. For those who can look past the surface and do not feel that patent owners are evil simply because they own patents, the term “patent troll” is usually a term that is reserved for those who acquire patents from inventors or companies, perhaps through bankruptcy, auction or otherwise, and then turn around and sue giants of industry for patent infringement. In other words, patent trolls are those who simply acquire patents for the sole purpose of monetizing the patents through licensing regimes and ultimately litigation if a license cannot be obtained. These types of patent acquirers are typically well funded, they are not engaging in any commerce, so they do not fear a patent infringement counter-claim because they are not infringing (or, in fact, doing) anything.
Years hence we may look back to Tuesday, January 14, 2014 as the turning point in the battle against abusive patent litigation. On January 14, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the settlement with one of the more notorious patent trolls. See NY Attorney General Settles Investigation into Patent Troll. This operator, MPHJ Technologies, is the owner of patents dealing with scanning technology and has claimed that thousands of small businesses infringe its patents. MPHJ has been one of the entities used by those in the anti-patent community as an example of a patent system run amok. At the end of the day, at least for those who carefully pay attention and look at the facts, this is not a story about the patent system in any way, shape or form. It is a story about a bully that engaged in reprehensible pre-litigation scare tactics.
Unfortunately, in his announcement of the settlement, Attorney General Schneiderman went too far in condemning legal patent activities in the name of defining what is a patent troll. Schneiderman said:
Patent trolls – sometimes referred to as “patent assertion entities” – are not innovators. They buy patents owned by others and then try to turn a profit by aggressively pursuing businesses they claim infringe the acquired patents. In virtually all cases, the businesses targeted by patent trolls did not copy other companies’ technology. Instead, patent trolls argue that that independently developed technology or business processes used by the target – and in some cases, everyday business activities – require a license linked to the troll’s patents.
The problem with this definition is that there is nothing illegal or immoral about acquiring patents, there is nothing illegal or immoral about enforcing patents and seeking out licensing agreements, and independent creation has never been a defense to patent infringement. Thus, it is unfortunate that legitimate patent activities that are clearly legal were at least to some extent compared with the deceitful activities of MPHJ.