New proposals coming from the White House this week should give small business owners hope for relief from costly patent troll litigation. This type of lawsuit has been an increasingly expensive threat to small businesses, most of which never imaged they’ll be involved in patent litigation. The common perception is patent disputes are for manufacturers to worry about, and the number of small business manufacturers is dwarfed by those in construction, services, retail and health care. Unfortunately, patent trolls, politely called non-practicing entities (NPEs), have turned that perception on its head.
The way NPEs work is frustratingly simple. They acquire patents, often in large packages at a time, and then look for existing products which could be deemed to infringe on the patent. But instead of going after the business which is making the product, NPEs frequently go after the end users. Think of this in terms of the Samsung v Apple litigation that’s been in the headlines so often lately – imagine if Samsung had not sued Apple but rather demanded licensing fees directly from every iPhone user in the country. This is the tactic the NPEs take.
The NPEs know their patents are often worthless. If they were forced to defend them against an actual manufacturer, with financial resources behind them, they’d face the real risk of having the patent invalidated. So by pursuing the end user, often a business who bought a particular software program or copier, they’re pursuing those least able to defend themselves. The NPE sends out mass mailings demanding penalties and licensing fees, and waits to see who responds. In most cases, the targeted business never even learn who’s behind the NPE, they only deal with the law firms who make a living fronting for these entities. That may soon change.
The proposals from the White House include seven legislative recommendations and five executive actions. While the legislative recommendations would certainly be most helpful, the chances of Congress passing anything requested by the Administration seem slim. The executive actions appear to be more likely, and should ultimately help small businesses who are targeted by these trolls.
In the short term, suggested changes requiring the true owner of a patent to identify themselves should help targeted businesses and provide a claim history for their counsel to track. This will certainly help. Also, the Administration has proposed an education and outreach program so targeted businesses can learn more about their rights.
The biggest improvement, however, is likely to be in the long term as new efforts are implemented to improve training for PTO examiners. The goal is to restrict the acceptance of overly broad claims in issued patents. Applicants will be forced to improve the explanation of their claimed invention, and the patent will be limited to a specific method of accomplishing a task, instead of all method for accomplishing the task.