Last week, the FTC proposed to use its Section 6(b) power to investigate patent trolls. Its clear from the agency’s comment request that what they’re really interested in examining is the practice of patent privateering.
For The Umlaut, I wrote an article explaining what patent privateering is and how it upsets the fragile state of affairs in the software industry.
Because patent trolls are non-practicing, they are not subject to threats of counter-suit and mutually assured destruction. Because they are not members of any SSOs, they do not have any obligation to license on a FRAND basis; standard-essential patents can be transferred to privateers and then asserted against all users of the standard. And because the transfer of patents to patent trolls is often done through various shell companies or other shadowy means, the defendant and the public often cannot know on which practicing software company’s behalf the privateer is working. This means the defendant cannot retaliate through countersuits or a public relations offensive.
I think that understanding how patent privateering actually works and how it disrupts companies’ attempts to innovate makes one much more sympathetic to simply abolishing software patents outright. Given that the practice is not widely understood, the FTC could add value by simply disseminating information about it to a wider audience. I don’t think that the FTC has the authority to regulate patent enforcement, since patent rights are explicitly authorized by Congress, but they can and should send Congress the message that software patents are being used to stifle innovation, not promote it.