It has been almost two years since the app-developers world had heard anything from Lodsys, a patent troll that in 2011 sued iOS and Android developers for supposedly infringing on two patents related to the “click to upgrade” functionality used in some apps. But earlier this week, the troll again reared its head, this time to take on another 10 app developers, including Gameloft, Backflip Studios, TLA Systems, and Disney, related to in-app purchases.
While a giant like Disney may not be intimidated by such a legal challenge, for smaller developers an affront from the likes of Lodsys can be damaging – not least because most are likely unaware that they are even close to stepping on the troll’s patent turf, given that, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, the technology in question is provided by Apple and Google in the first place. Developers and startups – and even larger companies – often find that it would ultimately cost far more to fight the trolls in court than it would to just pay to license “their” technology. And so Lodsys can boast on its god-awful website that its licensees include Hulu, Roku, Photobucket, Box, Qualcomm, and Oracle, among a couple hundred others.
One organization that is especially angry about this turn of events is the Application Developers Alliance, which is determined to help software developers arm themselves against Lodsys and other innovation bandits. Starting Tuesday in San Francisco, the Alliance will be hosting a series of patent summits around the country to raise awareness about what can be done in response to claim letters and lawsuits brought by such trolls. So far, 15 cities from Los Angeles to Boston are on the agenda, which will stretch into September. At each event, an expert will deliver a presentation about patents – covering their history and why they exist – to be followed by a panel, an open-floor discussion with attendees, and a networking session.
“It’s not going to be a dry, boring legal seminar,” says Jon Potter, the Application Developers Alliance president. “It will be much more of a martial arts class.”
Potter says the Alliance’s members are unnerved by what appears to be the patent troll business model of suing small companies first – or, as he puts, “bludgeoning small companies with legal fees, or threats of legal fees.”
“We need to help protect our members, small companies and startups, that are being preyed upon by leeches,” Potter says, before adding: “bloodsucking leeches.” The patent summits are a practical way to help such companies understand the patent system and its inherent risks and opportunities, he says.
The “patent troll protection racket,” as the Alliance’s chairman Joel Spolsky calls it, has shown robust growth in recent years. Lawsuits surrounding software patents have more than tripled since 1999. The Alliance is urging small companies to not acquiesce to the trolls’ demands. “Civilized people don’t pay up,” Spolsky says on his blog while equating patent troll rackets with organized crime. “They band together, and fight, and eliminate the problem.”
The US Congress is starting to pay attention to problems with the patent system, with Rep. Peter DeFazio recently introducing the SHIELD Act, which has the stated goal of protecting tech startups from predatory lawsuits. However, any action on a policy level is likely to be slow in coming. There has been only one discussion on patent issues in the House Judiciary Committee so far this year, and Congress is currently preoccupied with issues like immigration reform and gun control.
Says Potter, “We don’t expect this [reform] is going to be quick by any means.”