The other day I had a friend call and ask me if I could help him out with some info about visual effects. He’s not in the industry, so I wondered about this, but I gave him a call back ready to help him out if I could. As it turns out he was looking for information about Match Moving. It’s not something I know a ton about, but I know some people that I could refer him to. I asked him why he was looking for the info. He mentioned he was working for a company doing some research for a patent they own. I asked him if this company had a product related to match moving? No. Were they thinking about building a product? No. So basically they’re a patent troll? At which point he admitted he was working for a patent troll. It’s good money apparently.
IMHO, patent trolls are the terrorists of the tech industry. (note: I’m not saying they are terrorists, they aren’t killing people)
They stifle innovation, damage companies that are trying build businesses and employ people, and generally sap resources/money that could be put to much better use. They’re particularly damaging to companies the size of Digital Anarchy, who really don’t have the resources to fight endless legal battles. Most of the companies doing computer graphics software are small companies, that don’t make tons of money.
For me to agree to help a patent troll is not only against my principles, it encourages behavior that will probably be used against my company at some point. We don’t make match moving software, but I know people at companies that do. So basically I would be helping bring misery on friends of mine if I were to help him out. That’s not karma I want. I was somewhat insulted he asked me for advice.
In part, the trolls are an artifact of the patent system, which is broken. Too many bad patents are issued. There is some legislation in process that may help, but things move slowly.
What’s a patent troll? They are groups of lawyers (usually) that buy up patents (usually unused for anything) and then start suing companies they think are infringing. Often they’re smaller companies that are unlikely to be able to afford a patent legal battle. Frequently the patents are overly broad and should be overturned, but that’s a long, expensive process. Big companies are also targeted though… NewEgg, the technology reseller, is famous for battling bullshit patents and winning (The lawyer at NewEgg is my hero). Sadly, most big companies will settle as it’s cheaper. That works out a little better for them in the short term, but hurts everyone long term as it encourages the trolling tactics and leaves bad patents in place. I hope more big companies take NewEgg’s example and do the right thing for the industry as a whole.