After years of exacting payments from American businesses, the easy paydays for patent trolls may be about to end. In December, the House of Representatives took action to prevent frivolous patent lawsuits. Now it’s up to the Senate to get on board and stop these trolls from sucking the lifeblood from our economy by leveling baseless charges against small businesses.
Patent trolls are entities whose business model consists of buying up patents and exacting payment from companies — mostly small businesses — that perform functions or sell goods that might violate those patents. Officially, the trolls are known as non-producing entities (NPEs) because they don’t actually make anything but rather latch onto companies that do produce goods and demand payment from them.
As President Barack Obama phrased it, these trolls “hijack” ideas and “extort” money. In 2012, patent trolls filed 62 percent of all patent lawsuits, but trolls don’t have to file claims to wreak havoc on businesses. Often the simple threat of a lawsuit is enough to scare businesses into forking over millions of dollars to settle out of court.
While patent trolls claim they’re defending small businesses and individual innovators against patent infringement by big businesses, it’s really the other way around. Trolls target small businesses specifically, knowing they will settle to avoid expensive lawsuits. In 2011, 90 percent of companies facing patent litigation were small to mid-sized businesses, with average annual revenues of $11 million. Big businesses can afford to defend themselves; small businesses can’t. And the costs of settling keep the small businesses from creating new jobs or developing innovative new products and services. This places a massive burden on our economy.
Fortunately, our legislators are stepping up to solve the problem. The Innovation Act passed the House in early December by a vote of 325-91. This rare showing of bipartisan support for passage and the support of the White House gives hope that in 2014 our nation’s businesses will hire more workers rather than more lawyers. Regardless of political affiliation, patriotic Americans recognize that something must be done to protect small businesses from the legalized extortion rackets run by trolls.
The Innovation Act makes it much harder for patent trolls to bring frivolous lawsuits, requiring that patent claims be specific about how defendants violated a patent. Under the bill, patent ownership must also be transparent, naming anyone who has financial interest. Unlike the current system, if the plaintiff loses, the Innovation Act would require that the troll pay the legal fees for the winning company. The bill also delays discovery until courts can address the legal questions, saving companies the time and money that go into fulfilling demands for records. And the bill protects end users, keeping trolls from going after small businesses that use a certain software, such as coffee shops offering Wi-Fi to their patrons.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.