Beyond the bottom line: The true cost of patent trolls

The costs of patent trolling often aren't directly visible, but the benefits of fighting back are coming to light

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Lost time

Few people want to deal with the hassle of being sued, and patent-troll suits are a distraction, even for companies that already have sizable legal teams. That makes it all the more tempting to simply pay the asked-for patent licensing fee and be done with it -- especially if you're a tiny company. Time spent filling out paperwork or arguing in court is time lost not actually creating things.

With all of the above, there seem to be few incentives to fighting back. But a few signs here and there show that not rolling over, costly and difficult as it is, has more of an effect in the long run.

Going to trial: Costly, but potentially powerful

Few can afford a full-blown patent trial, which is lengthy and costly. But challenges made against a troll in court can have a cumulative effect, and the trolls know it. A a successful legal challenge against a patent troll would deprive them of a revenue stream they could levy against other, future defendants.

Case in point: When notorious patent troll Lodsys recently tried to demand money from antivirus makers Kaspersky, Lodsys found Kaspersky quite willing to go to court. Lodsys settled -- for a total payment of $0 -- rather than face a trial.

Also, thanks to the America Invents Act, programs now exist to provide pro bono legal aid for victims of patent trolling. The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) may also be able to provide aid. One software developer sued by Lodsys and looking at possible six-figure legal bills to mount a defense was given aid through PUBPAT and got his case dismissed.

Challenging existing patents

Countersuits against patent trolls often feature challenges to the patents in question, and they ought to whenever possible. Martha Stewart's countersuit against -- who else? -- Lodsys is in this vein; she contends that not only do Lodsys's patents not apply to her iPad magazine apps that are the target of the suit, but the patents themselves are invalid. If the court finds in her favor, those patents are dead, as is Lodsys's business model for them. But, again, getting there may take years.

Victims, set aside your differences (if any)

Multiple targets of the same patent troll, no matter what their industries or rivalries, should put aside their differences and pool their legal resources against trolls. Oracle and Google, never particularly friendly to each other by default, went all-in together to take on Lodsys in 2012. The results of that effort are still pending, but two can clearly turn up far more prior art research than one.

Crowdsourced patent research should also be done as broadly and publicly as possible. Article One Partners, for instance, has offered four-figure bounties for those who can provide prior art to help invalidate Lodsys's key patents: '908, '078, and '565. All still remain unclaimed, possibly because of the weight of evidence needed to prove prior art conclusively enough in this case.

Because the costs of patent trolling are not always obvious and can run deep, the ultimate solution is sensible reform of the patent system to keep it from being abused by trolls. But until that day comes, the best near-term solutions shouldn't involve simply caving in.

This story, "Beyond the bottom line: The true cost of patent trolls," was originally published at 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 on Twitter.

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