Patent trolls vs. innovation

Lots of lawsuits against developers symptomatic of larger problem

When Google, Apple, Microsoft and the like bash each other about the corporate head and shoulders with their ever-expanding patent portfolios, no one worries that the legal-department combat will kill the companies' respective research and development operations.

No such confidence exists, however, when so-called patent trolls take aim at small software developers. The most prominent recent example of the latter scenario has involved a string of infringement claims and lawsuits filed by Texas-based Lodsys against iOS, Android and BlackBerry developers.

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BACKGROUND: Google lashes out at patent trolls with Motorola buy 

While Apple and Google have taken some steps to support their beleaguered developer communities, at least one observer of the patent landscape insists that the major platform companies need to step up and do more.

"I believe all platform companies — Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM — should take joint action against Lodsys and provide meaningful, reliable guarantees to their app developers that they're fully covered if Lodsys sues them over the four patents it currently lists on its website," patent expert Florian Mueller told ZDNet. "Those large platform makers have a responsibility and I don't think any one of them has done nearly enough to respond to this issue, which is disappointing. Blanket coverage for small developers is the only real solution in connection with Lodsys, but no platform company provides it."

Of course, one person's patent troll is another's diligent defender of intellectual property rights. Lodsys and companies like it - so-call non-practicing entities - operate within the boundaries of U.S. patent law, which does not require that a company actually utilize the patents it owns and asserts.

Congress recently passed and President Obama signed into law the first major overhaul of the patent system in some 50 years. However, critics of that legislation say it does nothing to address the problem of patent trolls. The Electronic Frontier Foundation writes in a blog post: "The legislation wholly fails to address many of the biggest problems plaguing the patent system, especially the problem of patent trolls. This is especially troubling now, as trolls are targeting small app developers, driving some of those developers out of the U.S. market entirely. The reform act also does nothing to limit patent damages by aligning them with any actual value of a patented invention. We hope legislators won't treat the passage of patent reform legislation in 2011 as an excuse to ignore the growing troll problem, which stymies innovation, hurting individual inventors, small businesses, and our economy at large."

Even if Congress does decide to address this issue anew, it's highly questionable whether a lot of small developers will be able to afford to wait for that protection.

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