A US federal judge may have finally found a way to get rid of patent trolls – force their lawyers to pay all the legal bills incurred by lawsuits, rather than permitting trolls to pay their legal representatives using a portion of their winnings.
Patent trolls are the scourge of the global technology industry. They exist primarily to make money by buying up loads of vague patents that they don't intend to ever actually use, in order to try to bully companies by claiming that the victim has violated a patent's copyright.
When a company actually invents a product with an interesting new function, the patent troll looks through its catalogue and picks a vague patent that might possibly encompass the new function to threaten the company with a lawsuit. The only way to avoid costly legal fees is to agree to pay to "licence" the patent, even though the company hasn't done anything wrong at all.
There's pretty much no way to stop patent trolls, because they operate by the, "If you don't try, you don't get" mantra.
Their lawyers will happily write lots of threatening letters to many companies for them and file numerous tedious lawsuits that clog up the courts, because if they eventually win the case in court or get multiple victims to pay licence fees, the lawyers are happy to receive a percentage of the total winnings extracted from the victims, rather than charging a standard hourly rate.
But according to Computerworld, there might finally be a solution. In a final ruling on the case Gust vs Alphacap Ventures and Richard Juarez in December, US District Court Judge Denise Cote decided to find the patent troll Alphacap Ventures' lawyers personally liable for a $508,343 (£411,083) fine.
Don't have any money? Okay, your lawyers can pay
The case had already gone before the US Supreme Court, which had ruled that the case could not succeed legally. Gust, the victim, then decided to countersue for its legal fees and damages, but the lawyers for Alphacap Ventures tried to argue that Gust couldn't sue because the patent troll didn't have any money.
So to get around this, Judge Cote awarded Gust $508,343 and decided that the firm should be able to get its money back from either the patent troll or its lawyers.
The rationale behind making the patent trolls' lawyers pay the fines is that patent trolls typically bring in licence fee payments by threatening a large number of companies at the same time, and then actually follow through suing only a handful of the companies.
The threat of imminent legal action persuades the other firms to give in and pay the licence fee, even if they haven't infringed any copyrights, simply because smaller businesses and startups trying to break onto the market with a new invention can't afford lawsuits the way tech giants like Apple, Google or Samsung can.
"It is highly, highly, highly unusual for counsel to be held directly responsible for these fees," Lori Smith, a partner with the White and Williams law firm that represented Gust, told Computerworld. "I think it is going to have a significant chilling effect on patent troll litigation. You're going to see law firms thinking twice before they take on clearly questionable patent litigation."