Patent trolls' next target: Independent developers

The attack on a group of Apple developers shows how badly our patent system is broken and how vulnerable the mobile ecosystem has become

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On May 13, many iOS developers reported receiving FedEx packages containing a threat that they risked patent-infringement lawsuits if they didn't pay Lodsys to license a patent covering in-app purchasing and other app-related matters. Here's what the company said on its blog:

There are lots of bills in life that it would be preferable to not pay if one didn't have to. Lodsys is just trying to get value for assets that it owns, just like each and every company selling products or services is, trying to do business and make a profit. It's odd that some of the companies that received notices had such a visceral reaction. Some of these companies have our favorite apps, for which we paid the asking price. We realize [sic] you have to get paid for your work and so do we.

Not only does the potential lawsuit threaten the developers, it threatens the mobile economy as a whole, which is dependent on the efforts of third-party developers, says Florian Mueller, a European activist who has pushed for software patent reform.

"Lodsys is trying to abuse the patent system in a way that could ultimately destroy the entire mobile apps economy, which is not only thriving on its own but has been and continues to be a key factor in making new mobile devices so useful and popular," Mueller wrote on his blog.

Apple was silent on the matter for more than a week, but on Monday Apple senior vice president and general counsel Bruce Sewell sent a letter to Lodsys telling it to back off. "Apple is undisputedly licensed to these patents and the Apple App Makers are protected by that license. There is no basis for Lodsys' infringement allegations against Apple's App Makers," he wrote.

Sewell's language makes it clear that he rejects the idea that the license agreements don't cover third parties. While he doesn't explicitly state that Apple will pay legal costs for the developers if it comes to an actual court fight, ISVs interviewed by our sister publication Macworld were pleased.

TLA Systems developer James Thomson, who broke the story when he received a letter from Lodsys, expressed a feeling of great relief: "I am extremely relieved that Apple has stood up for its developers against these patently unfair claims by Lodsys.

"I always believed they would, but it's a huge weight off my shoulders to see it written in black and white. The last 10 days have been some of the most stressful of my professional career, and I'd just like to say thanks to Apple and all our customers and friends who have been highly supportive of us during this time."

Other developers are less certain that Apple will really fight for them and have banded together in an effort to pool resources and stand up to Lodsys.

I hope Apple comes through. But the real issue here isn't Apple, or even Lodsys. It's a broken system that -- to use Matt Taibbi's memorable phrase -- is a vampire squid sucking the life out of innovation.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Patent trolls' next target: Independent developers," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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