February 27, 2013 | By Julie Samuels

The Real and Dangerous Effects of a Patent Troll

The patent system is broken. Software patents serve as little more than a tax on innovation. Patent trolls extort money from legitimate small businesses and innovators, hurting our economy and society-at-large. 

In other words, nothing we haven’t said before. But don’t just take it from us. Everday, real people come up against a broken patent system, which takes a toll on their businesses and lives. Take Austin Meyer, who runs a small successful business called Laminar Research that makes a flight simulation product called X-Plane. He’s facing a lawsuit from Uniloc, a patent troll who claims to own a process that uses a network to communicate with an authorization server to perform a license validation check.

Here’s his story, in his own words: 

About two years ago, my company exported X-Plane to the Android operating system. We did this by accepting source code from Google that allows anyone that wants to download X-Plane for Android for a few dollars. Once the download is complete, the person that just downloaded the app runs it, and the code that was provided to us by Google then checks if the App was paid for.

This is a very simple and commonly used type of copy protection that has been in use at least as far back as 1988, as far as I can tell.

So, things went fine for two years or so. Customers that wanted to see what it would be like to fly an airplane purchased X-Plane for Android and enjoyed flying it!

Then, about five months ago, when working at a trade-show selling X-Plane, I got a call from a lawyer in Tyler, Texas, indicating that I was being sued there, and that if I wished to retain his services, he would represent me for a price… of two million dollars. Arriving home a week later, I received this lawsuit from Uniloc, claiming that I was infringing on their patent. The lawsuit seemed to claim that I was in violation of patent number 6,857,067, apparently for using source code provided to us by Google.

I have been writing X-Plane for Macintosh, Windows, Linux, Palm, iOs, and most recently Android about 20 years now, and delivered it to countless customers, each of whom voluntarily decided that they wished to exchange a small amount of money for an App that lets them pretend they are flying an airplane. Can you figure out what applications Uniloc has produced? Do you think that Uniloc makes its money by free exchange of products and money with willing customers, or from settlements made under pressure of lawsuit?

These kinds of lawsuits, and the patents they're based on, might sound crazy. But their effects are real, and acutely felt by those who face them. More from Austin: 

While I cannot go into any further specifics of this lawsuit, I am going to tell you about some of the cost.

Firstly, there is the cost of defense fee ... and that is if the jury ultimately finds that we are RIGHT.

But is that the final cost?

Can you imagine the stress of having a lawsuit like this hanging over your head?

Can you imagine the time, energy, and stress that it sucks out of you?

And what about future products? I recently created a backup avionics system for actual aircraft that lets a pilot use an iPad to keep control of his airplane if he loses his cockpit instruments in flight. I certainly will NOT port this App to Android, or make any OTHER new Apps for Android, because of this lawsuit and others like it.

What products will never be made because of these types of lawsuits?

What other businesses, in addition to mine, will be crippled?

Am I the only one that this happens to?

Could it happen to you or the business you work for? 

Austin is in a position to fight back, joining others like Twitter and Newegg who have, to their credit, done the same. But that’s an expensive, long fight, one that many parties can’t afford. This is why the patent troll business model works. It’s time to make life harder for the patent trolls by passing legislation like the SHIELD Act, which would require a troll who brings a losing suit to cover the fees and costs of a party like Austin. Join us in supporting this important legislation.

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reason.tv interviews Austin Meyer and EFF's Julie Samuels about the patent troll problem.

Do you have a story similar to Austin's? Have you been targeted by a troll? You can help by sharing your own experiences. And join in EFF's fight to fix the broken patent system at Defend Innovation.


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