Patent trolls are a serious problem for large businesses and technology makers. They are companies that exist primarily to buy up patents and then collect money, in the form of licenses or lawsuit settlements, from alleged infringers of those patents. Trolls take advantage of a patent system with serious flaws, and their abuse of the system is creating, as a White House fact sheet recently put it, a "drain on the American economy."
And, as it turns out, a drain on you, the ordinary consumer.
Let's say you're a technology consumer - and these days, that's almost all of us. Patent abuse can cut off your access to the latest and greatest products and services. When a troll waves the specter of a lawsuit or an overly broad patent in front of a tech startup, it is not uncommon for the startup to drop features from products, drop products altogether or even fold up shop; this was the key finding of a 2012 study from Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley on startups and patent trolls. Big companies have millions to fight a patent battle; small businesses must give in or give up.
The other way that patents affect you is more complicated and more insidious. It begins with the realization that you are not just a consumer. As a user of technology, you are a player in the patent system.
Have you connected computers to a wireless network? There are patents on doing that. Have you scanned a document and emailed it? There are patents on that too. Have you used a smartphone app to purchase something? Then there are a few more patents you should look at.
These are no mere hypotheticals. All three examples represent real cases in which consumers of technology - albeit small businesses, not individuals - have been caught up in patent fights just because they used a product as it was designed to be used. In fact, the patent owners have turned from attacking big companies to threatening mom-and-pop stores, Internet cafes and hobbyist app developers too small to put up the requisite million-dollar defense, and that are likely to cave in and pay on demand. In this race to the bottom, it's not hard to see that individual consumers - you - could be the next victims.
The problem only worsens as new technologies develop. Simpler programming languages, open-source hardware and 3D printing will enable individuals to tinker, invent, create and manufacture - and suffer at the mercy of a confounding and costly world of patent law.
Now let's be clear: The patent system is intended to reward inventors and incentivize invention, bringing new technologies to you, the consumer. To the extent that it succeeds in that noble goal, the patent system is to be applauded.
But when questionable patents are used, not to vindicate rights but to extract nuisance settlements, when a company called Innovatio IP Ventures can threaten 8,000 cafes and bed-and-breakfasts offering Wi-Fi to customers, when Dallas businessman Erich Spangenberg can take the patent system and, as he told the New York Times, "exploit its ambiguities and pokiness" to the tune of $25 million a year, it is clear the system is being stretched beyond its intended aims, that patents are being abused to benefit the few.
When you envision the promise of future technology, what do you see? I imagine having access to the newest products and services and using those innovations to creatively solve my problems and improve my life, whether that involves connecting with friends on the latest social network, fixing things around the house with 3D-printed parts, organizing my photos on my new phone or something I can't even dream of today.
And I imagine a world where I can do all that without the looming fear of becoming a victim to patents.
Abuses of the patent system threaten to eviscerate that vision, to stand in the way of the path to accessible, available, usable technology for all. As consumers, we must demand patent reform to protect that promise of the future.
Charles Duan is the director of the Patent Reform Project at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit dedicated to an open Internet. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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