As only he can, John Oliver dished out a simultaneously sharp and hilarious censure of so-called patent trolls on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. Patent trolls are companies that don’t actually create the patents—they merely stockpile and sue anyone who violates them. Because legal fees are so expensive, companies typically settle on an arbitrary amount with the patent trolls out of courts, even when their claims are ridiculous.
“They pick a number the same way airlines pick a cabin temperature,” Oliver says. “Perfectly calibrated to make you miserable, but not so much that you’d actually do anything about it.”
Software patents, in particular, are often extremely broad, making them the catalyst behind many attacks—such as when one company in Connecticut, which finds jobs for people with disabilities, was sued over its use of the scan-to-email function on the company photocopier.
The root of the problem is that the US Patent and Trademark Office is underfunded and has a serious backlog of unexamined patents. But in any case, reform is needed.
While the White House has come out against patent trolls, no serious legislative action in the US has as yet been taken. As Oliver mentions, a bill that would have at least forced patent trolls to be more transparent about their identities passed the House of Representatives, but was killed in the Senate under pressure from lobbyists. And while many of the ideas in that bill might have helped the problem slightly, it wouldn’t have completely eliminated it.
One radical solution? Get rid of software patents entirely.