Patent infringement lawsuits filed by non-practicing entities, also known as pantent trolls, continue to rise in the U.S. Almost any business that uses basic technology is a possible target of patent trolls — the result of a patent system that has done a terrible job of evaluating software patents and a court system that hasn’t done much better at examining them. In some cases, trolls are even forcing business owners to choose between paying employees and paying legal fees.
As of late, these evil trolls have made their way out from under the bridge to the top of the country’s political and judicial agenda. Over the last two years, the U.S. Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Patent and Trademark Office and a White House task force have all launched studies on this issue. In January, President Barack Obama even trumpeted the need for patent reform to curb “needless litigation” — a veiled reference to trolls — in his State of the Union address.
According to Fortune Magazine, last year, patent trolls sued over 4,800 defendants and more than 2,600 different companies. In the same year they even brought nearly six times as many lawsuits as they did in 2008, against 60 percent more companies, which accounted for 67 percent of all patent suits filed. In 2013, AT&T was sued for patent infringement by so-called patent trolls a startling 54 times — more than once a week, according to recent statistics.
Fortune recently published the 2013 list of top 10 patent troll targets, which include AT&T, fighting 70 active cases as of the publication date. Next in line is Google, which was hit with 43 suits last year; Verizon, 42; Apple, 41; Samsung and Amazon, which were hit with 39 each; Dell and Sony, hit with 34 each; Huawei, hit with 32; Blackberry, hit with 31.
Reportedly, patent trolls filed 3,608 new suits in 2013, up 19 percent from the 3,042 they filed in 2012, and their suits named 4,843 total defendants, up 13 percent from the 4,282 sued a year earlier. In fact, patent trolls suits accounted for 67 percent of all new patent cases filed last year, and 63 percent of all new patent defendants.
To help fix this problem, The White House has responded to the complaints with a rule from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that will record who owns what patent. The USPTO also is creating an online toolkit that a company accused of patent infringement can use to research a firm that has sent a letter. The White House also stated that it hopes to knock out bad patent applications by allowing companies to identify, for example, an existing patent similar to the application.
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