New inventions and engineers go together like songs and musicians, and consequently every engineer should know something about patents. The practice of patenting inventions to give the inventor a temporary monopoly as a reward for ingenuity is something that most countries do today, and by and large, we are probably better off with patent systems than without them.
But patent systems can be abused, and some of the biggest abusers of the patent system in the U. S. are “nonpracticing entities” (NPEs), otherwise known as patent trolls, as pointed out in William J. Watkins’ recent book Patent Trolls: Predatory Litigation and the Smothering of Innovation.
If you’re a patent troll, here is what you do. First, you acquire a lot of broadly written patents on some technology that either has a lot of wealthy corporations active in it already, or is likely to in the future. Software is a favorite, as is wireless technologies and even business practices involving the Internet. You either file the patents yourself or, more likely, buy them up at a dime a dozen at a bankruptcy sale of some startup. Then you wait till a well-heeled firm like Apple or IBM is doing something vaguely related to your patents, and you send them a letter threatening to sue for patent infringement.
If they call your bluff, you file suit in the U. S. District Court of the Eastern District of Texas, headquartered in the town of Marshall near the Texas-Louisiana border. You carefully select a jury of twelve rural citizens who probably wouldn’t know an ethernet cable from a rattlesnake, and your lawyer (who is a member of your small NPE firm) exhorts them about the evils of out-of-state big-business interests who try to crush the innovative spirit of the small, struggling, independent businessman/inventor, namely you. More likely, the defendant corporation you threaten to sue simply settles out of court for millions of dollars rather than face an even more expensive jury trial, and you walk away richer and better-funded to do it all over again next time.
If this unsavory process smacks of blackmail, you are on the right track. Unfortunately, a number of legislative and bureaucratic circumstances have created a large loophole through which millions of dollars each year is drained from productive firms into the pockets of patent trolls. So what do you do? Lots! Do everyone a favor and learn more about patent pending status and how it can curb the patent troll.