NPR Exposes Patent-Trolling, But Will Reforms Result?

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NPR’s Planet Money team has produced a story for sister public radio program This American Life that simply must be listened to.

Titled “When Patents Attack,” the segment is a searing look at the world of “patent trolling,” the practice of leveraging patents to sue one’s way to profits against start-ups and huge companies alike.

The show singled out one patent “troll” in particular, Intellectual Ventures. Not surprisingly, Intellectual Ventures has fired back.[more]

On its blog, an uncredited statement says, in part, “We appreciate that patents are an emotionally charged issue that generates a lot of conversation and varying points of view” but that “the story’s reporters use some colorful and dramatic devices.”

The retort hardly addresses any of the specific criticism aimed at the firm by the producers, and, further, its waffling response only reinforces the story’s original point about the firm’s toe-the-company-line way of responding.

While the national patent situation has been well known within the software development and legal worlds for some time, NPR has launched it into the pubic square, giving the social chattering classes something they love: a bad guy.

After the show debuted, the San Francisco Chronicle asked, “Who Does Patent-Trading Firm Intellectual Ventures Work For, Anyway?”

It’s certain that an open conversation about the patent system is hardly going to happen (let alone change things) overnight, but increased awareness may encourage more transparency, an issue the NPR story noted was a huge problem.

As noted in the NPR story, tech brands including Apple, Microsoft and Google are paying millions and even billions of dollars for patents they have no intention of using, just to protect themselves from patent trolls down the road. It’s considered, the NPR report argues, a “cost of doing business” that duly gets passed along to the unwitting consumer.

Meanwhile, patent trolling continue unabated. Purple Leaf, widely identified as a patent troll, just sued Amazon, accusing its Amazon Payments system of infringing on a patent held by the firm. This follows similar patent lawsuits by Purple Leaf against Google and Apple.

Now that it’s launched in the US, Spotify has been hit with a “vague” patent suit by a smaller startup, PacketVideo.

Impulse Technology just named Microsoft and other games makers for infringing on its patent which, at its most specific, seems to protect “System and method for tracking and assessing movement skills in multidimensional space.”

Angry Birds parent Rovio remains embroiled in a fight with patent troll Lodsys, involving Apple and resulting in “a handful of overseas app developers to declare they’re pulling all of their apps from U.S. app stores in order to protect themselves from the Lodsys patent brouhaha.”

It gets even more interesting globally, where it seems patent trolling is now picking up steam in India. In England, where it’s long been practiced, The Guardian recently went after Intellectual Ventures itself, asking, “Why won’t Intellectual Ventures answer questions about its relationship with Lodsys?”

In you have a few minutes, give the NPR piece a listen, and be sure not to miss the portion on patenting a “Bread Refreshing Method” (what you and I might call “toast”).

Then ask if the patent system isn’t stifling innovation and just what is that costing consumers and brands?

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