It's no secret that patent trolls are the bane of the legal system and software companies. 2011 saw more than 4,000 patent lawsuits in the U.S. court system, the highest ever. These lawsuits are a drain on companies, costing the economy at least $29 billion a year.
Part of the reason that those numbers are so high is because of the growing number of patent trolls. Folks are finding major flaws in weakly worded patents, and they're using them to squeeze major dollars out of productive companies.
Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel at Google, recently wrote about the issue over at Wired, and he had some very interesting points to make about it. He commented on the fact that lots of people have ideas, but it's the execution of those ideas into valuable products that actually makes a difference. "Products and services – not legal claims – are what improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and billions of people around the world."
Walker had three specific recommendations for fixing the patent system:
"Let's stop bad software patents from issuing." "We should weed out the bad software patents that have already been issued." "We need clearer rules for damages and awarding costs."
Walker was especially critical of "elastic" claims that trolls use to stretch the intent of the original patent to mean something far more than what is on paper. For instance, older elastic patents have been used to claim ownership over the interactive web and even e-commerce in general. (Walker put the challenge of handling financial business method patents squarely on the shoulders of Congress and the America Invents Act (AIA) program.)
Despite a number of tools that have been created by corporations to help fight off patent trolls, the legal system itself will have to rise to the challenge of weeding out the mess that has arisen over the past few years.
Let Companies Get Back to Work
For those of us who don't have to worry about sitting in a courtroom all day long pondering through the exact meanings of patent wording, the whole idea of patent trolls could be considered as one big distraction if it weren't for one important fact: the more resources that companies spend on litigation, the less they have for everything else. New products are slower to come out. Less time and money can be spent on innovation and moving forward.
Our economy needs companies to be able to focus on what they do best. And it's not the American court systems need more work. There will always be plenty of cases to rule on, but leadership in the tech field is a scarce commodity. Let's not waste it.