Mobile developers strike back against patent trolls

The mobile revolution is threatened by lawsuits aimed at small developers -- but now they're coming together to take on Lodsys and its ilk

It's hard to believe that a tiny firm in East Texas could shake up the mobile apps world all by itself. But Lodsys, a company that sits on piles of patents and uses them as leverage in lawsuits, has done just that. It started in May with attacks on small iOS developers. Apple and its lawyers came to their defense, but the move only seemed to embolden Lodsys, which has started targeting Android developers.

Now, I'm pleased to report, the developers are fighting back with Operation Anthill. Mike Lee, a well-known developer and founder of Amsterdam-based development initiative Appsterdam, is leading the charge. "If you step on an anthill, you'll soon be covered in swarming, biting ants. You could, in theory, crush them one by one, but it's much easier to just avoid anthills," he wrote.

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Lee is prone to mixing his metaphors, calling Lodsys a "blood-sucking tentacle" in the same post, but Anthill was launched as Lodsys continued to escalate its attack. It's become clear, says patent reform advocate Florian Mueller, that "Lodsys is not afraid of suing deep-pocketed app developers." Indeed, that bunch has already gone after big companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Brother International, Adidas, Best Buy, and the New York Times, which are being sued for things like ad click tracking, questionnaires, and live chat. The most recent lawsuit brings the total of firms being sued by Lodsys to 37, he says.

Now the FUD has crossed the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, where developers have begun to drop out of Apple's App Store, fearing they may be the next to face the wrath of Lodsys. (For the record, Lodsys has a blog where it states its position. I don't buy it for a nanosecond, but here's its side of the story as of late May, the most current post.)

I'd seen the initial attacks on small developers as a serious annoyance, but not a huge deal unless you were personally in the crosshairs. But I underestimated the problem. Mobile apps depend on the development and maintenance of a complex ecosystem that includes device makers, platform developers, and app developers. The "patent trolls," as Julie Samuels, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls them, are threatening to undermine that structure.

"Platforms such as iOS and Android allow small software developers the ability to widely distribute their work, which -- for obvious reasons -- is good for both developers and consumers. Just as these developers were finding new audiences, the patent trolls decided they wanted a piece of the action and started sending cease-and-desist letters demanding license fees, and in some instances even suing," she wrote recently.

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