EFF is pleased to see the Indiegogo campaign page of Internet startup CentUp has returned after the page was briefly taken down in response to a complaint by a patent troll. We hope this takedown is not the start of a trend of patent trolls sabotaging startups by complaining to online intermediaries. And we applaud Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform crucial for financing many startups and projects, for doing the right thing and restoring the campaign.
Some background: CentUp is a new company trying to break into the micropayments business. They hope to create a button that can be placed on webpages to allow Internet users to donate small amounts to creators (with a share of the money going to charity and a commission going to CentUp). Even though it has not even launched its product, CentUp received a cease and desist letter—a classic example of the growing problem of startups being targeted by patent trolls. To make things worse, the troll also contacted Indiegogo and, in response, Indiegogo briefly took down CentUp’s campaign page.
CentUp believes its business will never infringe. (To infringe a patent you must perform each and every step of one of its claims; the patent in question is directed toward political donations and requires numerous steps that CentUp claims it will not perform.) But that is not the key point here. Our concern is that any dispute between the patent owner and CentUp should remain between them—and only them.
Rightsholders should not be able to, simply by sending an email, shut down a startup’s access to Internet intermediaries. This is especially true in the patent context where a neutral service provider like Indiegogo could not even arguably be held liable for the conduct of its customers. The standard for inducement or contributory infringement in patent law is very strict: it requires active steps to specifically encourage infringement.
This case is a troubling example of the weakest link problem. Many individuals and companies will use Internet intermediaries—such as YouTube or Indiegogo—to reach an audience or raise money. Subversive rightsholders can apply pressure on these intermediaries to silence speech they don’t like. For example, we recently helped a science fiction author get her book back on Amazon after a bogus trademark complaint. We hope this CentUp case is the last time we see a patent troll abusing a weak link to put pressure on a startup, and we implore online intermediaries to resist such misguided threats.