Patent trolls: Just a bedtime story or menace to businesses everywhere?

Once upon a time, the United States’ patent system served a great purpose—to allow inventors to publicly share their inventions without fear of idea theft; inventions that transformed processes, technology, medicine, etc. rather than sat hidden away. Yet, today patent assertion entities (PAEs), or patent trolls, amass patents that are exceptionally vague (particularly technology-based ones) like weapons and use them to shakedown business in order to force settlements and patent infringement fees.

What is a patent troll? What is a troll? Let’s ask the Billy Goats Gruff. The fable goes that three goats attempting to cross a bridge were prevented from doing so by a troll who demanded payment (eating them) for using a product (the bridge) that the troll had not actually created. Patent trolls do the same thing and mount a business on the concept: purchase patents and search for any instance, even long-shots, to use them against unsuspecting businesses.

Although 41 Attorneys General (including Ohio AG Mike Dewine) have signed a letter to the Federal Trade Commission supporting a nationwide investigation of patent trolls, patent abuse is affecting businesses now; a Boston University study found patent trolls cost US businesses $29 billion in 2011. While this unfortunate practice may speak to a larger, federal problem in regard to the criteria an idea must meet to be patentable, states are beginning to step up to prevent abusive and predatory lawsuits in the name of patent infringement. In the wake of Vermont legislation, Ohio legislation may be on the horizon that will do the same: force plaintiffs to provide ample evidence of infringement and allow companies to bring about their own lawsuits against patent owners who have threatened to sue in bad faith. Patent troll legislation will help protect small businesses from paying what amounts to a ransom in unwarranted settlements and fees or fighting a costly legal battle.

Interested in more general information on patent trolls? Check out NPR’s This American Life’s two part series via podcast or transcript.

Has a patent troll affected you or your business? Share your story with the Ohio Chamber!