The basic history of the problem goes something like this: When the software industry first started booming, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office didn’t have the resources or knowledge to keep up with it, and ended up granting patents that may have seemed narrow enough at the time, but ended up describing all kinds of future inventions that no one would have anticipated.
To wit: Some of these patents technically apply to every mobile phone app. Seems great for the future of software development!
As a result, companies as big as Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft have found themselves in court in plaintiff-friendly East Texas, where fully a quarter of patent troll suits are filed. As Oliver points out, Samsung even built an ice rink outside the Marshall, Texas courthouse to build goodwill with potential jurors. An outdoor ice rink. In Texas. That’s how absurd this has gotten.
And that’s what happens to the companies that have money to fight the trolls. A typical suit costs $2-5 million to defend, so smaller businesses that haven’t actually done anything wrong are often better off paying a six-figure settlement than going to trial. (That’s why 90% of patent troll cases are settled.)
So, how do we fix this? It’s not really clear—legislation that would help a little bit, by making the trolls pay court costs when they lose, and reveal more about who they are instead of hiding behind intellectual property shell companies, died without a vote in the Senate a couple of years ago.
It’s up for consideration again, but those changes wouldn’t fix the overarching problem: a bunch of valuable intellectual property held by people who didn’t invent it and don’t intend to use it to create new products. And it seems like even John Oliver doesn’t have a way to stop them.
Check it out anyway though, at least he is funny: