Solving the “Patent Troll” Problem

Travis Waller, MJLST Managing Editor

“Dovre: What’s the distinction between troll and man?

Peer: So far as I know, there is none, by my score.

The big want to roast you, the small ones to scratch you; —

same as with us, if they dare but catch you.”

Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Act II, ll. 903–06 (John Northam, trans., 2007) (1876).

In recent events, internet “trolling” has become something of a hot issue. This discussion will not address internet trolling (even tangentially), but will instead endeavor to shed light upon a different, often craftier member of troll-kind: the patent troll.

To begin, what is a “patent troll?” The term has taken a somewhat expansive usage since its original appearance in a 1990’s educational video released to corporations. Today, the term can refer to a broad range of practices, but most commonly is understood as the practice of an individual or corporation (sometimes with a large patent portfolio) that abusively uses the threat of enforcement litigation for overly broad, and probably invalid, patents that it has acquired to essentially extort licensing agreements from companies (often quite small) that do not necessarily have the resources to devote to patent litigation, and are likely not even infringing on the “trolls” patented invention to begin with.

Since that was a mouthful, let me provide an example:

Company A (the “troll”) purchases a patent on invention A3;

Company B independently creates invention ABC123, and acquires a patent;

Company A claims that patent A3 reads on patent ABC123, because it claims elements A3 are contained in Company B’s patent ABC123;

Company A sends a letter to Company B demanding that it licenses patent A3, or will face a “prompt” litigation action.

In this example, Company B, fearing that Company A may actually be within it’s legal rights, agrees to pay Company A the fee to license patent A3 for fear of Company A filing expensive patent litigation against Company B, even though a court would almost certainly find that invention ABC123 is nothing like patent A3, and therefore that Company B is not infringing on Company A’s rights (for a few “real world” examples, as well as a dash of technology industry gossip, see this article by Business Insider).

The question arising from situations like this that many courts and lawmakers have hemmed and hawed over is this: who is right? On the one hand, federal patent law strives to protect the rights of the legitimate inventor, and incentivize the very “progress of the useful arts”. On the other hand, how can the law protect companies and individuals like Company B from being bullied by the aggressive assertion of patent rights by companies like Company A?

The answers have manifested themselves mostly through federal and state law making, starting first with the enactment of the Lahey-Smith America Invents Act (the “AIA” for those in the know). This Act modified existing US patent law to allow for a process called “post-grant opposition,” which essentially allows individuals to challenge the validity of a patent after it has been issued by the USPTO, but without having to set foot in a courtroom (theoretically creating a much cheaper option than trial for individuals seeking to invalidate broad patents) (for more info on the process, see here).

The AIA is still relatively new (enacted in 2012), and it is hard to say for certain how this procedure has affected the act of “patent trolling”, however some have made the claim that the AIA has not had the effect of “starving patent trolls” that the lawmakers hoped it would (see here for more discussion on this point).

As such, individual states have taken the fore in this fight against the patent troll, and it is often the case that state consumer protection agencies make up the front lines, by way of various state unfair trade practice laws. However, many state legislatures have taken a much more targeted strategy, and have begun to arm their agencies with the ability to specifically bring actions against individuals and corporations for the “bad faith assertion of patent rights” (as of 2016, Minnesota became one such state).

This action gives state agencies a huge benefit in targeting “troll-like” behavior in the patent industry, but at what cost? Federal patent law preemption issues aside for right now (and yes, they are out there), how exactly will an agency define what “trolling” is? How will state agencies determine that the assertion of the patent right was “in bad faith?” Moreover, how will this effect an otherwise uniform protection that patent holders have across the US?

These questions, and many more, will no doubt need to be addressed by states adopting the “bad faith assertion of patent rights” statutes. For now, since I don’t have an answer off-hand to this incredibly intricate legal and policy question, I will simply eco the words of Henrik Ibsen: “what is the distinction between troll and man?” What is the distinction between patent troll, and legitimate inventor? And finally, are these definitions really something we want to leave in the hands of state agencies, which may or may not be relatively unsophisticated in the intricacies of federal patent law?

My initial impression is one of skepticism, but if the willingness of a great deal of state legislators to adopt such measures can be taken as some indication of a nationwide public demand for a new way to address these issues, maybe this is the start of a conversation that should have happened some time ago.