In the middle of 2019, Daniel Villalobos found out he’d been sued. He figured it out when he started getting emails with a strange offer—a company from India was offering to do research work to help him invalidate a patent.

“I thought it was some spam, or something of the sort,” said Daniel.

But in the next few hours, he got several more emails from law firms, offering EasyTracGPS their services in the litigation that he was about to face. One of the lawyers sent him a copy of the patent infringement complaint filed against EasyTracGPS, the family-run business that Daniel has worked for since 2007.

EasyTracGPS had been sued by a patent troll called Inventergy, which owns U.S. Patent No. 8,760,286. Inventergy uses this patent to threaten lawsuits against businesses that provide GPS tracking services, like EasyTracGPS. Daniel’s business installs and maintains GPS tracking for trucking companies, cabbies, and fleets of limousines.

The patent wasn’t claiming anything that could possibly qualify as an “invention” in Daniel’s industry. Inventergy’s patent simply recites generic steps, like collecting and sending location information.

“It seems what they were touting in the patent was buffered data,” said Daniel. “That was totally abstract and generic, as far as I was concerned.”

“My dad literally died for this business back in 2015, after he had a massive heart attack while installing a tracking device,” said Daniel. “He was my best friend and partner, and we did everything together. And now, just when the business is finally entering a growth phase, someone is trying to take it away from us through some claim that has absolutely no merit.” 

But taking a patent case through discovery and trial can cost millions of dollars, which a small business like EasyTracGPS doesn’t have. That’s why small businesses are often pressured to give in to patent trolls that make demands for big money—tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars—that are still well below the cost of litigating all the way through trial.

EasyTracGPS didn’t want to back down from Inventergy’s allegations. Fortunately, Daniel contacted EFF, and we represented EasyTracGPS pro bono, sending Inventergy a letter [PDF] explaining that their allegations were baseless, and that they wouldn’t be getting a settlement payment from Daniel. As we explained, Inventergy’s patent is “directed to an abstract idea and lacks anything that could constitute an inventive concept” under the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank. The Alice decision allows courts to quickly dismiss lawsuits based on ineligible patents like the one owned by Inventergy.

Bad software patents like Inventergy’s turn the real story of innovation on its head. Consumers benefit when companies like EasyTracGPS work hard to offer better services than their competitors—not from courtroom disputes over patents.

Small businesses stay ahead of their competitors by working hard, and responding to what their customers want. Patent trolls like Inventergy don’t have to do that because they don’t make products. Instead, they just buy up patents, then use them to scare businesses into paying them off to avoid litigation.

This story had a happy ending, but Inventergy has sued 10 other businesses. We don’t know how many others might pay up to avoid painful litigation or pay even more to endure it. But we do know that it’s vital to keep Alice—and the part of the statute on which it is based—strong.