Google, in collaboration with other companies such as BlackBerry, EarthLink and Red Hat, submitted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) a series of comments. Their request is of a greater vigilance against the phenomenon of “patent trolling”, which is the use of patents for the sole purpose of restricting competition and to obtain money through lawsuits or through agreements following threats of such action.
The American laws allow to patent not only material technologies but also software and more abstract concepts. For example, in the laswuit that in recent months had Apple against Samsung one of the points argued concerned the alleged copy of the rounded corners of some devices, a patented element.
In recent years there has been a kind of arms race in the field of technology and many companies have used patents to attack their competitors. Some practices, however, are even worse, for example when companies are threatened of a lawsuit for alleged violations of patents for the sole purpose of reaching out-of-court settlements. For example, Microsoft earns a lot of money from Android thanks to the agreements signed with manufacturers of devices that use this operating system.
Another practice that has become trendy is patent privateering. In essence, a company sells the licenses on its patents to other companies, which use them only to sue other companies or at least threaten to sue them for alleged violations of some of those patents.
In particular, small companies are vulnerable because they can’t afford expensive lawsuits. Even big companies often decide to settle and pay licenses to use patents that are accused of violating rather than face lawsuits that are long, expensive and have uncertain outcomes.
It’s been estimated that those practices cost about $30 billion a year. These costs are inevitably offloaded on to customers by the companies that have to pay them while patent trolls often only act as parasites. Companies specializing in such practices in fact don’t sell products but merely make money through patent trolling.
Google and its allies point out that the situation that has been created just limits the possibilities for research and development, again to the detriment of consumers. Particularly in technology fields, the harm to innovation harm the economy in general hampering the development of companies that could create development and more jobs.
It’s a complicated situation and to solve the problem of patent trolling several changes to the American laws on patents would be needed. It won’t be easy, because many companies make money and limit their competitors thanks to this situation. On the other hand, doing nothing means to risk significant limitations to technological development.