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 Beware the patent trolls


Do you have a great idea you're working on? Perhaps something you are just about ready to release? Beware the patent trolls; they are lurking and waiting for a tasty feast!

The World Wide Web in relation to ecommerce, online applications and services is still in its infancy. It is still very much a fertile ground for innovation and will be for a long time to come. 

There are many new ideas, processes, designs and inventions yet to be seen. But just because they haven't been seen, it doesn't mean the concepts aren't already "out there" - and patented.

First of all, what is a patent? 

A patent is a government issued license that gives the holder exclusive rights over an innovation. In the USA, I believe that most patents are valid for 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed. It's a very long time, especially when the fast pace of development of the Internet is taken into account; it's an eternity. An old patent can have huge ramifications on technology that becomes popular, especially if that technology is released by a person or company who is not the patent holder.

Patents can be bought and sold or the patented invention licensed to others for use - it's a great way for inventors to make some cash, nothing wrong with that. 

What is a patent troll?

The complications arise when Patent Trolls come into play. These are companies that buy up patents left, right and center.. and then, like the mythical creature; wait for a victim.

The term Patent Troll was coined by an Intel executive who was fed up at the time with some companies whom he felt were suing Intel for patent infringement in a predatory, frivolous or opportunistic way. 

The amusing thing is that same executive is now reportedly a partner in a patent licensing firm that is labeled by some as engaging in patent trolling.

The purchase of patents as the basis of a company isn't reprehensible in itself, it's how some of those companies go about exercising their legal rights which is a little on the nose.

The trolling strategy

Let's say you come up with what you believe to be an innovative ecommerce process or application; you haven't seen it in production anywhere. It's exciting, you can't wait to launch it, so you steam ahead with development and roll it out. All is quiet from the Patent Trolls at this stage, even though they are aware of you - but you not of them. At this point, you still honestly believe your innovation to be orginal.

Time passes - your process or application becomes very popular, you become the darling of the media, investors dive in and throw money at you and then bam! The Patent Troll strikes, demanding huge royalties to be paid or you risk a lengthy, nasty and very expensive legal battle - with the real danger of losing it. Defending a patent suit is not for the faint-hearted or shallow pocketed.

Again, by Patent Trolls, I'm not referring to companies who are just defending an invention they own, or one they fully intend on putting into production or an idea they wish to sell/license; I'm referring to those who buy up patents and "hide" them for the express purpose of demanding unrealistic royalties or for opportunistic litigation. It's somewhat of a gray area. 

You've probably also seen the stories of companies threatening legal action against anyone utilizing a commonly used technology. Here's an example of a Patent Troll - I remember a few years ago that a company was doing the rounds demanding licensing fees from other companies which used hyperlinks; which it stated infringed on their patent. Crazy, but true. Imagine if it had succeeded?

Microsoft stated last year that they spend close to US$100 million a year defending themselves against an average of 35 - 40 patent lawsuits at any given time. I'm not saying that perhaps all those lawsuits are unjustified; it's just to give an indication of how big an issue it can be.

With around 1.9 million inventions under active patent in the United States, a "new" idea can very often be old news - it's just that the patent owner (who often isn't the original inventor) hasn't bothered to put their invention into production and market it. 

Researching and filing patents

So you've decided you wish to avoid the patent trolls - what next? You can use some of the databases listed below; but the more I looked into this area, the more I saw it littered with minefields for the inexperienced. The bottom line is, if you want to be really sure, and even then it still won't totally protect you against litigation from vultures and nutters; hire a lawyer that specializes in the field. 

It's also a very wise move to file patents for your own innovations and inventions. Links to filing patents in particular regions can also be found below. Again, it appears to be a very complex process and as such, you're probably best getting one of those lawyer thingies. All this legal mumbo jumbo really takes the shine out of invention and entrepreneurialism doesn't it? 

Patent research resources

Patents.com 
European Patent Office

German Patent and Trademark Office
IP Australia
Japan Patent Office
UK patent office
US Patent and Trademark Office
World Intellectual Property Organisation

Another interesting resource is Free Patents Online. It provides free patent searching, with features such as PDF downloading, search management functions and collaborative document folders. Free Patents Online also provides  professional customized services.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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