A disturbing new trend is emerging in the world of patent litigation. Non-Participating Entities (“NPEs” or, more colloquially, “Patent Trolls”) have now started threatening, and in some cases suing end-users of technology which the NPEs are claiming infringes upon patents they now own.
In the ArsTechnica article above, you can read the tale of an Atlanta-based IT services company, BlueWave, who recently tangles with such a troll. In this instance, the NPE, through a law firm, was seeking to “settle” an infringement claim against BlueWave for making use of scanners to create .pdf documents from hard copies and then e-mailing and otherwise distributing the .pdf files (as just about every business in this country now does). Of course, it sounds ridiculous on its face that this could be a violation a valid patent, and yet, there do exist several patents which claims to cover this series of processes.
While it is probable that these patents (and many like them) are vulnerable to attack, NPEs are increasingly making use of such patents to press for settlements from companies who they believe are unlikely to go the time and expenses of fighting off such claims (or seeking to invalidate the underlying patents). In some cases, the NPEs are even filing suit, in hopes that by increasing the pressure on the alleged infringer, that a settlement will result.
Technically, there is nothing illegal about such tactics. At the same time they reek of bad faith and dubious business practices. At a minimum, they certainly represent a perverion of the intent behind our intellectual property system.
Legitimate or illegitimate though, we can expect to see much more of this kind of behavior.