I hate patent trolls.
They’re the bullies of the nerd world. “You have something I want [money], so I’m going to take it with the power I have [patents].” While it sounds kosher on the outside (they have the patent), inside it’s brimming with a cornucopia of nerd evil.
Recently, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) sent out an email that our site owner received regarding a podcast patent troll. Inside the email they mentioned:
You can help save podcasting. A troll has been using an outrageously overbroad patent on distributing media files to sue podcasters and threaten others into settlements. EFF hopes to mount a campaign to bust the stupid, dangerously broad patent that Personal Audio has been using to shake down podcasters…Patent trolls don’t make anything—they just use the threat of lawsuits to extort settlements from their targets. Their actions chill innovation and stymie working creators, and EFF would be proud to have your help in saving podcasting from this assault.
From that description we can see a few issues with patent trolls:
- They can use broad patents to attack an entire tech industry.
- They’re not after protecting their own creation, they’re after the money.
- Because they can attack such a wide range of businesses, their attacks have the possibility of slowing those businesses down, crippling them, or even closing them completely (due to the loss of funds and time).
The EFF was kind enough to respond to our request for an interview and provided the following answers regarding patents and patent trolls:
Q: Would you be able to send me a statement regarding that patent troll [Personal Audio going after podcasters]?
Patent trolls like Personal Audio do not contribute back to society—all they do is sue the latest generation of innovators and end users. This podcasting case perfectly highlights all that is wrong with the patent system today—broad software patents, abusive litigation, expensive fees.
Q: How would you define a patent troll?
A patent troll—often referred to as a patent assertion entity (PAE) or non-practicing entity (NPE)—is an entity that does not create anything but owns a patent portfolio. It then uses its patent or patents to threaten and sue smaller entities, often pushing licensing agreements for less than the cost of litigation.
Q: Traditionally, what has the EFF’s stance been toward patent trolls, including any actions undertaken?
EFF’s stance has always been against patent trolls. They hurt innovation, exploit a broken system, and do not contribute back to society. We’ve taken a number of actions in the past, whether it’s invalidating broad patents (https://www.eff.org/patent-busting), connecting developers who are being threatened with the proper help and representation (https://www.eff.org/issues/faqs-lodsys-targets), and educating people about the problems with patents (https://www.eff.org/patent).
Q: Over the past year, approximately how many patent trolls has the EFF been made aware of?
This is a difficult question to answer… if I had to guess, I would say “a lot.” We generally write about the particularly egregious ones—the podcasting patent troll, or the troll who claims to own the process of scanning documents to a network (https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/01/scanning-documents-patent-trolls-want-you-pay).
Q: How does the EFF plan on approaching patent trolls in the future?
We’ll continue drawing attention to their tactics by highlighting particularly bad ones. We’re also pushing for comprehensive legislation to fight patent trolls—and we’ve seen four or five pieces of legislation introduced in the last few months alone. We’ll also work to fight bad patents in cases similar to the podcasting troll.
Q: What can consumers do regarding patent trolls?
Learn about them. People can read about stories, tell us their own stories, and ask their members of Congress to act. Congress seems to really care about the issue of trolls right now; while the momentum is still there, people should express how important it is to fix this problem.
Q: How would the EFF view the current patent system?
Broken, at best. There are a number of fixes that need to happen on various levels—including some high level questioning of whether or not software should be patentable. We’ve seen how the system operates today: large patent wars, patent trolls, abusive litigation, and overly broad patents granted. This needs to change.
We actually have seven proposals of our own through our Defend Innovation campaign (https://defendinnovation.org/), and we’re planning on compiling feedback and stories into a whitepaper for Congress by the end of the summer. Congress needs to know how the patent system is working on the ground—how engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors actually feel about them—in order to enact effective change.
Patents, patents, patents
One of the issues here is patent misuse in general, but that requires a bit more of a discussion: how are patents being misused, what’s a patent supposed to be, etc. Come back tomorrow for a look at patents in general and “The Great Patent Wars.” In the meantime, let us know what you think of patent trolls in the comments.