- Patent trolls get really bad rap. But is there any value in what they do?
If you’re into technical businesses then you’ve likely heard of “patent trolls”. These people (sometimes large companies) amass vast collections of patents. Then, they spend most of their time and effort suing other people.
On the face of it, it looks like they have a monopoly over every conceivable idea in an area. Furthermore, they tend to not be actually doing anything with that knowledge… And, they’re aggressive and ruthless in enforcing their right to stop anyone else doing so!
It’s seen as a very cynical way to make money – whilst at the same time hampering innovation. The latter because, small companies have to jump through hoops to pay license fees to get a foot in the door. These practices often verge on anti-competitive and are roundly criticised.
For this activity, these special kinds of business people have earned the name “patent troll”. Referring to a fantastic human-like monster seen as cowardly – yet stubborn and greedy. Known for charging people to cross bridges, which they themselves have no right to. (Albeit, here the “bridge” people are expensively interrupted on – is the use of a technical design…)
A very apt characterisation – from this perspective.
It’s an issue that’s more rife in the US than the UK and Europe. This is because patent enforcement outside the states is much less aggressive – as legal frameworks prohibit the more “gung-ho” approach to litigation. This is simply because patents that are granted are less broad in character, and more reasonable pay and costs awards are less likely to make “trolling” a commercially viable activity, this side of the Atlantic.
But what might these “patent trolls” think about what they do? And is there any value in it (besides lining their pockets?)
Playing “Devil’s Advocate”
Patent trolls are the subject of a lot of ire in the business world. This is especially true in light of the growing role of technology in modern businesses.
But what if I told you that, in principle* “patent trolls” may actually fortify the value of IP? What’s more; their behaviour benefits technical creators… (albeit in a round-about way)?
Here’s a thought…
By ruthlessly enforcing patents, “trolls”, time and again, prove the value of IP. (Intellectual property being ideas put into a legally protectable format. In this case, a patent.
IP is only valuable insofar as it can be protected. If others can copy your idea – the entire economy of intellectual property collapses.
For businesses that do not produce products per se, but innovate ideas… this is a problem. For these people, it’s ideas that pay the bills (by protecting and licensing them)! And by paying these bills, more ideas can be researched that shape our collective future.
Within these businesses the value of IP and it’s licensing potential is paramount. And patent litigation makes this all the more visible. Fields include: pharmaceuticals, agriculture, construction and consumer technology, like in your smartphone**! And many more.
Another key difference in many people’s minds is that “patent trolls” tend not to operate in the fields they own patents to. This also ironically reinforces the value of IP as a valuable commodity which does not need to be embedded in the field it comes from.
Here, IP becomes more valuable as it can be monetized by anyone able to pony up the dough… (rather than having to be linked to those that simply have the capability to implement it). Whilst this is endlessly frustrating – it gives IP value when separated from the field. This increases the potential value of patents, as they may be invested in by wider groups of people. Albeit to rather self-interested ends.
So, it’s by being so callous and market-driven that “trolls” ironically ensure IP is so valued in technical fields today. Albeit a cruel twist, but threat of serious litigation is at the heart of IP’s value.
Patent Trolls – Closing Thoughts
Patent trolls will always be held in low-esteem. This is a perfectly valid position to take. After all, in the worst cases, they conduct business in an incredibly cynical way.
But (and it’s a big but) with a “silver-lining” outlook we might see misunderstood and unlikely IP heroes… Without trolls ready and willing to relentlessly chase up the value of patents – would we all be worse off? Maybe.
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*There is a lot of difference between what occurs in principle and in practice!