HPL's cases, however, fit into a controversial category. Opponents point out that HPL doesn't make products or provide services. They say it simply uses patents to seek licensing fees from others who actually do business. Critics label such companies "patent trolls."
"You really have to wonder what contribution they are making to our economy or our society, or if it's just a drain," said Jason Schultz, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley.
Patent trolling is legal. The patent office doesn't require inventors to put their ideas into action.
In 2011, entities like HPL sued 5,073 companies in the U.S. for infringing on patents that they either got on their own or acquired. That was more than double the number in 2009, according to PatentFreedom, a research organization that offers consulting advice for defendants in patent lawsuits.
PatentFreedom estimates the typical cost of a patent defense is $1 million to $5 million. Taking the low estimate, multiplied by the number of defendants, it sees such suits as a drag on the economy of more than $5 billion a year.
"Law firms are doing very well at this. Operating companies are not," says Daniel McCurdy, the founder of PatentFreedom.
The Times is fighting the case on two fronts: at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in the courts. Beginning late last year, it filed a number of complaints with the patent office on grounds that the government issued the patents incorrectly. The Times' legal team notes, for instance, that Intel Corp. received a similar patent in February 1996, some 18 months before Helferich got his. A few of the complaints have initially been found in the Times' favor, according to the newspaper company's outside counsel, Brian Buroker, although HPL is appealing. The process could take 18 months to complete.
The Times is also fighting the case in the U.S. District Court in Chicago, where it argues HPL already receives licensing fees from cellphone manufacturers for the same technology and therefore shouldn't be allowed to double dip and charge content providers.
The Times is spearheading the defense of a group that also includes CBS Corp., Comcast Corp.'s TV channels Bravo and G4, and J.C. Penney Co., according to court filings. HPL sued The New York Times Co. in July 2010; Bravo, G4, and CBS in October 2011 and J.C. Penney in December 2011.
The technology in dispute has become a key part of the companies' marketing campaigns. CBS texts followers to prompt them to visit its website for exclusive pictures and video to shows such as "Big Brother." Bravo sends messages to viewers' mobile phones to get them to participate in live online chats and polls. J.C. Penney lets shoppers with mobile phones know about sweepstakes and giveaways.