Sean Jackson is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, and is currently enrolled in Professor Mgbeoji’s Patents class, in Fall 2011. As part of the course requirements, students are asked to write a blog on a topic of their choice.
An ugly patent troll has reared its head again, this time targeting Amazon. With only a few weeks remaining before the release of its much-anticipated Kindle Fire, Amazon has been targeted by a patent troll. On October 7, 2011, Smartphone Technologies filed a patent infringement suit against Amazon in a Texas court claiming the Kindle Fire infringes several of its patents. While patent infringement suits are common occurrences in the high tech field, what makes this particular case troubling is that an infamous patent troll is lurking behind the scenes.
Acacia Research Corporation, a firm that actively buys and licenses patents through its subsidiaries, owns Smartphone Technologies. Acacia’s reputation as a patent troll appears to be well deserved as Smartphone Technologies has pursued patent infringement cases against both Apple and Research in Motion in recent years.
The problem with patent trolls is that these companies acquire vast arsenals of patents, which are used to make money by licensing to other companies or pursuing patent infringement claims. What distinguishes patent trolls from other companies is that patent trolls often have no intent to develop and commercialize the technology covered by the patent. To make matters worse, patent trolls frequently rely on patents that are frivolous and lacking merit. Patent trolling is a booming business and companies have adopted elaborate strategies to take advantage. For example, some corporations disguise their trolling practices in order to avoid public scrutiny. This is accomplished by confining their trolling practices to non-performing entities while at the same time having other performing entities.
In the action against Amazon, Smartphone Technologies makes claims to several technologies that appear to be commonly used in smartphones and tablets. For example, one of the patents (U.S. Patent No. 6,956,562) supposedly infringed by Amazon’s Kindle Fire makes the following rather broad claim to what appears to be a touch screen:
“A method for software control, comprising: displaying a graphic representing a set of one or more computer functions on a portion of a touch-sensitive screen, wherein the touch-sensitive screen is coupled to at least one processor to detect and interpret contact with the screen; …”
Another apparent infringement relates to a patent, originally owned by Palm, claiming a method for displaying multiple calendars on a personal digital assistant. The activities of patent trolls can have serious economic consequences on companies such as Research In Motion, which had to pay out a $612 million settlement in a case against another patent troll, NTP.
In light of the damage they cause one is left to wonder if anything can be done to stop patent trolls. While government intervention would seem like the most plausible solution this is unlikely to occur any time soon given the slow nature of legislative reform. Companies confronted by patent trolls are often left with the option of settling out of court and paying a licensing fee or slugging it out in court. Apple has taken a firm stance against Acacia and is prepared for a costly court battle. It remains to be seen whether Amazon will yield or take up arms against the patent troll that is Acacia.