Should Inventors Take Responsibility When Their Patents End Up In Troll Suits?

from the perhaps-not...-but... dept

There was a recent post on the Patent Examiner blog about yet another patent troll who's been suing a ton of companies with a variety of patents. Among recent lawsuits there was one against General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW of North America, Rolls-Royce, Hyundai, KIA and ATX Group for using GPS systems to track cars, and two more against AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, MetroPCS, T-Mobile and others over patents 7,852,995 and 7,860,225, titled “Method and apparatus for selectively providing messages in telecommunications systems."

As with many troll patents, the troll company has zero relationship with the actual inventor on the patents. The author of the article, Gregory Thomas, tracked down the inventor on those last two patents, one Jonathan Streitzel, an entrepreneur and inventor. When asked about these lawsuits, Streitzel pointed out:
“I don’t know the details, I just invent shit.”
And, to be clear, this is a perfectly reasonable response. At some point he sold off the patents. Neither Streitzel nor his attorney are willing to talk about the details, since apparently there was some sort of "confidentiality agreement," which is all too standard in selling patents to trolling operations these days. But, at some point, should the inventors at least take on some responsibility if their patents are being used to shake down companies and stifle innovation?

There's obviously no legal responsibility. But it does make me wonder if there's an ethical issue. We hear all the time from entrepreneurs who go out and patent things because they feel they have to: either some of their investors insist that they need patents or they do so to start stockpiling a defensive patent portfolio in case some practicing entity hits them with a patent lawsuit. They all seem to admit that it's a "necessary evil," and say that they'll never assert those patents themselves. But... at some point, the patents get sold. Often a company fails and the patents are a remaining asset. Or it just becomes too lucrative to not sell the patents.

And, while it's not clear if that happened in the situation above with Strietzel, we hear all the time about entrepreneurs who unwillingly got patents, only to later discover those patents were being used in trolling suits. Should those inventors speak up?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    DannyB (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 3:04pm

    Maybe a better question is . . .

    Should the US Patent Office take responsibility?

    Or be made to be financially responsible for the destruction they create?

    They seem proud of what they are doing. Completely oblivious to the vast wake of destruction they have created.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    crade (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 3:10pm

    Of course there is an ethical responsibility. Selling something to someone that you know or should know they plan to use to do harm to others with is in no way ethically sound.

     

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  3.  
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    A Guy (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 3:17pm

    Should a computer maker be responsible because someone decided to hack into a SCADA system with it?

    Should a gun maker be liable because someone got shot?

    Unfortunately, when you are liquidating assets, it generally goes to the highest bidder. It's true for defunct corporations who need to get the best value for their shareholders. It's true for an inventor who needs to build wealth to take care of this family.

    I would like to live in a world where no one will do business with you if your motives are ethically suspect, but that is not the world we live in.

     

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  4.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 3:23pm

    This shows why patents shouldn't be transferrable, nor corporate.

    Once again I've a practical solution that could actually be implemented, while Mike does only the easy part: a blog post with questions.

     

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  5.  
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    MrWilson, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 3:37pm

    Re: This shows why patents shouldn't be transferrable, nor corporate.

    So it's easy for Mike to post a blog post with questions, but your obvious solution that has been suggested by others before you, regurgitated in a single sentence comment on said blog post is any more difficult?

    If you think you're doing all the heavy lifting with this, why don't you see how easy it is to get your solution implemented.

     

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  6.  
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    crade (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 3:50pm

    Re:

    Should a gun maker be liable because someone got shot?
    They are ethically liable *if* they knew or should have known (ie is only pretending they didn't know) the shooter's intentions, like if they are selling guns to a known terrorist organization or patents to a known patent trolling company.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 3:59pm

    Re:

    When corporations go out of business then all of their patents should automatically be invalidated. It's not like corporations get patents with the thought, "gee, if I go out of business, instead of paying 15,000 I'll pay 20,000 of what I owe. I better start innovating so that I can get this patent and owe less when I go out of business". Who cares, the corporation is going out of business anyways and the patent is providing no additional incentive to innovate in the case that a business goes out of business.

     

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  8.  
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    iamtheky (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 4:08pm

    Re: This shows why patents shouldn't be transferrable, nor corporate.

    what exactly is the hard part and who is accomplishing it? because it is assuredly not you with your sentence fragment (nor I with mine).

     

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  9.  
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    abc gum, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 4:11pm

    Dear Jonathan Streitzel,

    That shit is not an invention.

    Thx

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 4:49pm

    I think this is a case of self-reinforcing system.

    Only the broadest patents are of interest to trolls (else they can't sue everyone).
    Hence they buy from the "inventors" who patent the broadest concepts.

    These "inventors" have no qualms selling them, for the simple reason that this must be the intent to start with.
    Why else would a "inventor" make such a ridiculous patent?

     

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  11.  
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    lucidrenegade (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 5:58pm

    Re: Maybe a better question is . . .

    Exactly. The root of this problem is the US Patent Office. If these shit patents weren't granted in the first place, none of this would be happening.

     

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  12.  
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    sophisticatedjanedoe (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 7:04pm

    Does this reasoning apply to copyright trolls? Is Kathryn Bigelow morally responsible for the abuse of her creation "Hurt Locker" if she blessed that abuse or at least did not try to prevent it?

     

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  13.  
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    Atkray (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 7:31pm

    NO!

    The answer is no, No, NO!

    This is applying secondary liability, something that most people here and I certainly am against. It sucks big time that this happens but as has been mentioned the blame lies with the USPTO for issuing junk patents and a screwed up judiciary system that does nothing to correct the problem.

     

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  14.  
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    Another AC, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 7:55pm

    Re:

    Really? I disagree. To play the devils' advocate, how is your argument different from the argument that 'Google does know or ought to know people use youtube to infringe copyright, therefore they are responsible for their users actions'.

    The problem here is the system, not the inventor. Don't confuse the two!

     

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  15.  
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    Another AC, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 8:03pm

    Re: NO!

    Entirely Agree!

    Mike, when you say "should the inventor speak up", what exactly would you have them say, and to what end? What would they take responsibility for as your post title says?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 8:07pm

    Why should they be involved? The inventor invents, he sells the invention on, and moves along.

    By the logic here, someone selling a used car should be responsible for someone else driving it drunk later on. The inventor isn't owner of the invention anymore, why would they have any control over it?

    Another one of those wonderful Techdirt paradoxes.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 8:41pm

    Re: NO!

    How come that only works one way—no blame when something goes wrong and the product is a failure, yet they’re quick to jump in and hold their hand out for a share when something goes right and the product is a success?

    Surely the concept of “property” works both ways: you get the benefit from it when it’s good, but you also suffer the consequences when it’s bad.

     

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  18.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Dec 5th, 2011 @ 8:42pm

    Re: Why should they be involved? The inventor invents, he sells the invention on, and moves along.

    So no subsequent royalty claims, then?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    carth (profile), Dec 5th, 2011 @ 9:52pm

    Absolutely not

    If there was some form of residual compensation or continued relationship, then I could see myself being convinced otherwise - but in this situation with the information provided? Not a chance. Once the patent was sold, that's the end of the inventor's involvement and therefore responsibility. Period.

    The fact that such a question, implying ownership continues beyond the sales, was posted on /this site/ - which has such a strong history of supporting the first sale doctrine - is baffling. To me, they are almost the same issue: Person A sells X to Person B. Assuming the sale was "legal", Person A is now completely, utterly, and totally disconnected from X. No liability, no ethical responsibility, no rights, no control, no connection whatsoever. The product is NO LONGER HIS, and this absurd idea that it's OK to shift responsibility from the people performing the undesirable action to people only peripherally involved is insane.

    I don't expect anyone to take responsibility for my actions, and I damn sure don't expect to have to take (ethical) responsibility for the actions people make when I'm not involved -at all-.

    This isn't upper-management taking responsibility and speaking out about a lower-level employee's misbehavior - it's "Generic-Small-Town-Burger-Joint" taking ethical responsibility when /Burger King/ bought their new french fry design, made the original store never use the design again, and someone choked six states over two months later. It's secondary liability - even if only "ethically" - at its worst. Pure idiocy.

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 6th, 2011 @ 5:11am

    Re:

    I would say that the situation is quite different.

    For copyright trolls, the creator still has a financial interest in the product. Bigelow is still making money from the movie and is promoting it. I'm not sure of that specific deal whether the copyright was assigned to a larger studio (which it probably was) but at any case the arrangement is more similar to a business partner arrangement.

    For this sort of patent issue, the original inventor has zero interest in the patent any longer. He sold it off and (typically) has no stake in what happens. These are usually straight cash sales with no licensing fees or other long term benefits to the inventor.

    It's really a USPTO issue as they're the enablers.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 6th, 2011 @ 5:14am

    Re: Re: Why should they be involved? The inventor invents, he sells the invention on, and moves along.

    For a sale, typically not.

     

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  22.  
    identicon
    staff, Dec 6th, 2011 @ 7:20am

    another biased article

    “Patent troll”

    Call it what you will...patent hoarder, patent troll, non-practicing entity, shell company, etc. It all means one thing: “we’re using your invention and we’re not going to pay or stop”. This is just dissembling by large infringers to kill any inventor support system. It is purely about legalizing theft.

    Prior to eBay v Mercexchange, small entities had a viable chance at commercializing their inventions. If the defendant was found guilty, an injunction was most always issued. Then the inventor small entity could enjoy the exclusive use of his invention in commercializing it. Unfortunately, injunctions are often no longer available to small entity inventors because of the Supreme Court decision so we have no fair chance to compete with much larger entities who are now free to use our inventions. Essentially, large infringers now have your gun and all the bullets. Worse yet, inability to commercialize means those same small entities will not be hiring new employees to roll out their products and services. And now some of those same parties who killed injunctions for small entities and thus blocked their chance at commercializing now complain that small entity inventors are not commercializing. They created the problem and now they want to blame small entities for it. What dissembling! If you don’t like this state of affairs (your unemployment is running out), tell your Congress member. Then maybe we can get some sense back in the patent system with injunctions fully enforceable on all infringers by all inventors, large and small.

    Those wishing to help fight big business giveaways should contact us as below and join the fight as we are building a network of inventors and other stakeholders to lobby Congress to restore property rights for all patent owners -large and small.

    For the truth about trolls, please see http://truereform.piausa.org/default.html#pt.

    Masnick and his monkeys have an unreported conflict of interest-
    https://www.insightcommunity.com/cases.php?n=10&pg=1

    They sell blog filler and "insights" to major corporations including MS, HP, IBM etc. who just happen to be some of the world’s most frequent patent suit defendants. Obviously, he has failed to report his conflicts as any reputable reporter would. But then Masnick and his monkeys are not reporters. They are patent system saboteurs receiving funding from huge corporate infringers. They cannot be trusted and have no credibility. All they know about patents is they don’t have any.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
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    crade (profile), Dec 6th, 2011 @ 7:36am

    Re: Re:

    Well, here I use "should know" to mean they are only pretending not to know (willful ignorance) if it is honest ignorance, there is no ethical problem. Keep in mind, I am talking about ethics, not legal so there is no need to "prove" whether the ignorance is honest or not.

    It's selling a gun to someone that told you they are going to shoot their wife with it rather than selling a gun to someone who just ends up shooting their wife with it

     

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  24.  
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    sophisticatedjanedoe (profile), Dec 6th, 2011 @ 8:59am

    Re: Re:

    > It's really a USPTO issue as they're the enablers.

    Well, then as of copyright trolling, it's a Congress issue as they are the enablers (by introducing ridiculously, insanely, unconstitutionally high statutory damages).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 6th, 2011 @ 10:29am

    > All they know about patents is they don’t have any.

    Not true. I'm a Masnick's monkey, and I recently bought this beautiful patent. Not to troll, but to prevent big corporations from stealing the beauty of this invention!

    It's so beautiful, I can't resist quoting it:

    An embodiment that is described herein below provides a method, which includes accepting a simulation task for simulation by a simulator that controls multiple co-simulators. Each of the multiple co-simulators is assigned to execute one or more respective sub-tasks of the simulation task. The simulation task is executed by invoking each co-simulator to execute the respective assigned sub-tasks.

    In some embodiments, the simulation task is defined at any given time by a simulation state that is maintained by the simulator, and each sub-task is defined at any given time by a respective co-simulation state that is maintained independently of the simulator by the co-simulator assigned to execute the sub-task.

    In some embodiments, executing the simulation task includes executing a given sub-task, which includes a value assignment statement, by a given co-simulator, returning a result of the value assignment statement from the given co-simulator to the simulator before execution of any non-blocking assignment if the value assignment statement is a blocking assignment, and returning the result after executing all blocking assignments if the value assignment statement is a non-blocking assignment. In an embodiment, returning the result includes scheduling the simulator to call the given co-simulator at a postponed time in order to accept the result of the value assignment statement.

    In some embodiments, the method includes returning control of the simulation task from a given co-simulator to the simulator before completing execution of a given sub-task executed by the given co-simulator, in order to enable at least one other co-simulator to operate concurrently with the given co-simulator. Returning the control may include scheduling the simulator to call the given co-simulator at a postponed time in order to accept a result of the given sub-task.

    In a disclosed embodiment, executing the simulation task includes executing at least one sub-task of the simulation task by the simulator. Executing the at least one sub-task may include synchronizing two or more sub-tasks, which are executed by two or more respective co-simulators, using the at least one sub-task executed by the simulator.

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Kevin Mako, Dec 6th, 2011 @ 11:07am

    The Patent Crusade

    The patent battles will always rage on. It's a constantly fluctuating system - As soon as the strength of patents becomes too powerful thus allowing trolling and such to hinder innovation, then the laws ease up and more free market allowances occur. Conversely, when too much free market activity occurs thus disenchanting investors from developing innovation for risk of theft, then the law picks up again. This cycle will always go back and forth.

    It also comes down to the people working on these "troll patents"... We develop hundreds of inventions for home inventors, and we never work with patent trolls or others who stifle innovation.

    ---
    Kevin Mako
    Mako International Corp.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    aikiwolfie (profile), Dec 6th, 2011 @ 12:38pm

    Selling Patents And IP should Be Illegal

    Patents and copyright are government sponsored licensed monopolies. Given that they are "licensed", meaning your monopoly doesn't last forever (in theory), it should be illegal to sell them on.

    Think of it this way. You apply for a drivers licence, pay the fee, take the test and if you meet the criteria you get your drivers license. You are no however allowed to sell that license on. Now some people will say "yeah but that drivers license is unique to you and covers only you". Which is true.

    However the whole point about copyright and patents is the IP created is unique. An inventor is granted a patent when the inventor creates a unique innovation nobody else would have thought of because it's not obvious. Which makes that invention or innovation unique to the inventor.

    Of course the USPTO and the US government know full well the overwhelmingly vast majority of patents are not for unique innovations or inventions. Which is why they are moving to "first to file" rather than "first to invent". Which really brings into question the legitimacy of most patents.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    Mr. Pond, Dec 6th, 2011 @ 5:11pm

    Moral issue? Yes!

    I agree completely with Mike here. As others have explained the original inventor has no liability, nor should he, however to my mind there clearly is a moral issue with his sale of the patents to what must have blatantly obviously been a rolling operation

    I've no idea what his motivation for the sale was, however as he operates under the patent system himself perhaps he ought to have given some consideration to what might be done with the patents he (apparently) flippantly dismissed in his reaction to the suits. Perhaps if he considered that as an inventor he might be the Target of such a suit in the future that he ought to be more circumspect about his use of the system.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 6th, 2011 @ 8:13pm

    Nevermind interpreters, academics patenting math should be shunned!

    Intepreners are by definition profit seeking people who get stuff done. Patents are just the tools of the trade to them.

    I think the real attention should be paid to accademics who are blatantly patenting mathematical formulas.

    If you want an example, here is a patent by the famous Ken Perlin: http://www.freepatentsonline.com/6867776.html

    These are the formulas being patented (not exactly rocket science):

    skew((x,y,z)−>(x′,y′,z′)): s=(x+y+z)/3 (x′,y′,z′)=(x+s,y+s,z+s);

    (i′,j′,k′)=(floor(x′),floor(y ′),floor(z′));

     

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  30.  
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    teka, Dec 14th, 2011 @ 8:14am

    Re: The Patent Crusade

    The problem is that the "easing up" never happens any more.

    IP Law, including patents and the whole host of imaginary properties as well, only ratchets down harder with each turn. Since there is no functional reverse and no strain relief this will continue until the entire system breaks. Meanwhile it is squeezing all the life out of innovators and successful creators.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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