Comedian, writer, and media critic John Oliver tackled yet another important tech issue on Last Week Tonight: Patent trolls. As Oliver explains, patents are “basically legally binding dibs” that often make no sense whatsoever and are bought up by companies that want to make money through lawsuits alone.
Patent trolls have become more common, as patents have become increasingly vague and easily applicable to new technologies. This is especially true of software patents, which are not typically very well defined. Patents are supposed to be for “new, useful, and non-obvious” technologies, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office can get overwhelmed and approve patents willy-nilly. It seems that this has been the case with software.
Oliver cites several absurd examples, including a case where Uniloc can basically claim that any Android app infringes on its patent because a piece of software interacts with a server. Another case involved a company that said an office infringed on its patent for a “scan-to-email” function by using its own photo copier. Based on that logic, says Oliver, a patent called “computer thing that never works” could be used to make a patent troll very rich. All they’d have to do is accuse FaceTime of infringement.
Oliver says that patent trolls run an extortion scheme and most never even make the technology they have patented.
“Calling them trolls is a little misleading,” Oliver says in a moment of pure brilliance, “Trolls actually do something — They control bridge access for goats and ask fun riddles.”
To make matters worse, patent trolls cost investors a lot of money and hurt businesses in the process. Because trials are so expensive and often long-winded, most companies agree to settle before going to court. In fact, about 90 percent of patent trials never see the inside of a courtroom.
Oliver also points out that one court in Marshall, Texas is a favorite spot for patent trolls, because the court almost always accepts those cases, no matter how inane the infringement is or how vaguely the patent is written. A quarter of all patent cases in the U.S. are actually filed in Marshall for that reason.
In order to sweeten up future juries, some companies invest money in elaborate public works projects to keep Marshall’s citizens happy. For example, Samsung spent almost a million dollars on an outdoor ice rink in Marshall, that’s placed conveniently right in front of the court house.
“It’s like building a bowling alley in space,” Oliver says.
However, there is good news in all of this, Oliver tells us, because there’s a bi-partisan bill called the Innovation Act, which would force patent trolls to be more transparent about their identities and pay if their lawsuits fail. It passed the House of Representatives a few years ago, but was killed in Senate by trial lawyers who happened to lobby against it. The law has resurfaced recently, and Oliver wants his viewers to help get this bill passed to reform patent law.
“Let’s reform our patents quick or we will all be in the shit,” he concludes.