SMEs: The unseen victims of patent trolling

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

As the European Commission turns its attention to giving SMEs a helping hand, here is a true story about how patent trolls broke the back of one successful small European business.

Patrick Oliver is Executive Director of IP2Innovate, the technology patent association.

The person telling this story insists on remaining anonymous, partly out of pride and partly because he doesn’t want to attract more attention from patent-assertion entities like the one that turned his life upside down a few years ago.

This reluctance in going public about a troll attack is common among firms of all sizes but particularly small ones. The cases that do get reported usually involve large firms that can afford to go to court, but it appears from this story about a Spanish software firm, that the cases that do come to light are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Trolls sharpen their knives on small firms they know can’t afford a legal fight. Then they take on the big guns. It’s a common pattern, and it’s what happened to us,” said the former finance director of the small Spanish firm that was attacked just over a decade ago.

His firm was sued for alleged breach of a patent. The litigant – a patent assertion entity – then went after larger competitors in the sector.

The competitors met and efforts were made to pool resources in the form of a group defence to fight the patent troll. However, the astronomic costs of seeking outside legal counsel, combined with the inevitable internal disruption sparked by the attack persuaded the Spanish firm to cave in.

It paid a seven figure sum to the patent troll.  As a result the firm had to ask investors for additional funds to pay the legal bill.

It didn’t end well for the firm. Within a few years it sold out to a larger US rival, and later this year the new owner is scrapping the Spanish firm’s product altogether.

“There’s no doubt that the patent attack was a turning point for the firm,” the former finance executive said.

“Not many patent troll victims will speak out about their experiences, partly because they fear further attacks and partly because no one wants to admit publicly to having paid millions to prevent a bogus patent lawsuit,” he said, adding: “You’d have to be very principled and very rich to speak out against the trolls.”

The US has seen a sharp fall in the amount of litigation sparked by patent trolls over the past five years.  Not surprisingly many have migrated from the U.S. to Europe in search of greener pastures.

SMEs are on the front line in new tech-related patent-heavy fields such as the Internet of Things. Inevitably over time they are going to be exposed to more complex intellectual property issues.  The problem of attacks from opportunistic patent trolls is one that could literally sink them.

Europe needs to address this with measures that will ensure that the proportionality requirement set out in EU law is effectively applied in all patent enforcement claims. Germany has recognised the problem and is looking at reforming its law. But there needs to be guidance from the European Commission too, because its main legislation in this area clearly isn’t working.

An attack from a patent troll is probably the last thing an SME wants to experience.

“At the time it felt like we were dealing with an organised crime syndicate. It was very stressful, and it wasn’t a good feeling once we paid up either,” the former finance director said.

“How can anyone argue that the patent system works properly when it allows such harmful acts to be carried out with little or no consequence for the perpetrator?”

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