Patent trolls are considered to be organizations that go out, buy patents that they never intend to develop actual products with, then proceed to sue organizations that they claim infringe on those patents. Patent trolls make money from the resulting payout or a licensing agreement, if they win in court that is.
Microsoft has had its fair share of lawsuits filed for and against the software giant, with the latest one being the win against SurfCast, a patent troll that claimed Microsoft’s Live Tiles used in Windows and Windows Phone violated its patents.
"It's a very sophisticated industry with millions and millions of dollars being invested in this activity from very sophisticated people and they're making just business calls. If they make money on it, they're going to continue doing it. … That process [fighting off claims] can be very burdensome and time consuming and expensive. It's a distraction from what the business is there to do. It's not there to respond to threats, it's there to make product." – John Mulgew, former Microsoft lawyer.
Although the war against the trolls is getting better in the United States, at least according to a few former Microsoft lawyers. Previously, infringement claims come with a promise of exceptionally high legal costs, especially if a company is determined to fight back. But starting in 2012, companies could fight off the trolls thanks to the new Inter Partes Review system under the America Invents Act.
Simply put, the Inter Partes Review system works by asking a group of officials to review the way in which a patent owner is interpreting the claim. Any company can challenge patent trolls this way, and it can make it much harder for patent trolls to file for infringement once the review is complete. Think of the system as a checklist of prerequisites that if a patent troll cannot meet will not be eligible to take further action. We’re only now seeing the benefits of the new system since it can take years to complete the proceedings.
"It's definitely a positive direction but [patent claims are] still a big problem. If you look at the trend lines, it's coming down off the peak from maybe a year or two ago. But it's still a very significant problem for companies that's not going away any time soon. But it's moving in a good direction." – Bart Eppenauer, former Microsoft chief patent counsel.
Microsoft has also been fighting these claims in its own way. The company is involved with a number of companies that have been dubbed patent trolls themselves. This includes funding the likes of Intellectual Ventures, and being part of the Rockstar Consortium along with other of its members like Apple, BlackBerry, Ericsson, and Sony. Last year, Rockstar filed lawsuits against Google, Huawei, Samsung, Asus, HTC, LG, Pantech and ZTE for violating patents used in Android smartphones. So the software giant and other tech giants aren’t just sitting around waiting for the trolls to come. You know how the saying goes; if you can't beat ‘em…