There's little that's worse than opening the mail and finding correspondence from a patent troll demanding that you pay up for the use of a patent that allegedly covers something you've long done without having to pay a tithe. Worse, those demand letters are typically designed to be as opaque and threatening as possible.
But the arsenal of anti-patent-troll weapons has expanded as of late. One of the newest such bullets in the clip is a Demand Letter Analytics Tool now being offered by legal analytics outfit Lex Machina, available from the list of third-party tools mentioned in the United States Patent and Trademark Office's toolkit for how to respond to demand letters or lawsuits. It's part of a larger rollout of actions announced by the White House on Thursday to curb patent abuse.
Users of the tool provide some personal information -- name, email, company name -- and, optionally, some details about which law firm they're using. The user can also upload a copy of the letter itself, but that's not required. What's most required, though, is a list of any patent numbers mentioned in the letter, since that information's used to power the majority of the analytics.
The resulting report covers three major areas: the company bringing the suit, the law firm it has retained to do so, and the patents themselves. Details about the company include how many patent cases it has filed, and -- in some cases even more importantly -- how many of its patent cases have actually gone to trial, along with a list of the 10 most recently filed patent cases. Similar statistics are presented for the law firm in question: Which companies it represents, what cases it has filed, and, again, the number of cases that have actually gone to trial. The patents section of the report details how often a given patent has been asserted, how many open cases it's currently involved with, and whether or not it's been found unenforceable or invalid in the past.
Lex Machina's tool is only one of several related to searching and collating information about patent suits, as opposed to just information on patents alone. Trolling Effects, an Electronic Frontier Foundation project, lets you do quick-and-dirty keyword searches, browse recent demand letters (e.g., to see if you're only one of many being carpet-bombed), and submit letters for inclusion in the Trolling Effects database. Lex Machina's tool, though, seems to produce slightly more systematic and more contextually rich reports.
The tide has turned heavily against patent trolls as of late. Aside from some badly-needed, if incomplete, reforms having passed the House of Representatives, the question of whether or not software is patentable has been put back in front of the Supreme Court (it goes to argument at the end of March). But proper reform is still a ways off, and so until then, the more tools available to the lowly end user and individual developer, the better.
This story, "Got a patent troll demand letter? See if it's legit," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.