The Rutland Herald
Vermont takes on the trolls
Posted: June 5, 2013
In February, homegrown Vermont success story Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was sued by an entity called EMG Technologies. It claimed the Waterbury company’s website infringed EMG’s patent on an “apparatus and method of manipulation a region on a wireless device screen for viewing, zooming, and scrolling internet content.”
What does this mean? Well, in our multi-mobile device world, companies and individuals have had to ensure their websites adjust automatically to fit multiple screen sizes and display formats. This makes sense: Businesses develop creative solutions like these all the time to address changes in the marketplace.
What makes less sense is that EMG — who does not develop or sell new technology — is able to sue businesses like Green Mountain, AutoZone, Visa, Foot Locker, and others for infringing its extremely broad patent.
EMG is the definition of a patent troll. Patent trolls exploit flaws in the U.S. patent system, by asserting low-quality patents against a wide range of businesses. Faced with a complex, multi-million-dollar patent litigation, many businesses settle outside of court, costing American jobs and taxing our most innovative products and services.
According to estimates, trolls have cost the U.S. economy half a trillion dollars in the last 20 years, with over $320 billion occurring in just the last four years. Today, trolls account for a majority of all U.S. patent litigation, a clear illustration that this problem is only getting worse. What’s more, a majority of companies targeted by trolls are small businesses.
While Green Mountain may no longer be considered a little guy, it started as a small cafe in Waitsfield. To support and deliver the services its customers want and deserve, the company is employing innovative technologies to improve the customer experience online.
The patent system was created “to promote progress of science and the useful arts” that may not occur without the incentive of an exclusive patent right. However, in the fast-moving Internet and software-driven economy we are witnessing the opposite: Patents are slowing innovation and serving the interests of trolls, like EMG. Solving this problem requires government action.
Fortunately we’re seeing promising signs. In February, President Obama agreed that there is a patent troll problem. He said during a White House Google hangout, “[Trolls] don’t actually produce anything themselves. … They’re just trying to essentially leverage and hijack somebody else’s idea and see if they can extort some money out of them.”
Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently announced that he is working with and reaching out to other members of Congress, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, on solutions to this problem. We applaud his bipartisan leadership and stand ready to assist his efforts.
Impressively, Vermont is leading the fight against patent trolls in Montpelier as well as in Washington. Just a few days ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a measure aimed at patent trolls, making Vermont’s Legislature and governor the first on a state level to reform patent law. The bill’s text, drafted by state Rep. Paul Ralston of Middlebury, rightly recognizes the chilling effect that “bad faith” patent assertions can have on innovative businesses.
More recently, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against a patent troll. The troll had allegedly been sending threatening letters to small businesses in Vermont, which contained deceptive statements and a demand for $1,000 per employee in return for a license to its patents.
We commend Mr. Sorrell for taking on the trolls, as well as Rep. Ralston and the Vermont Legislature for crafting a creative solution to the rampant patent troll problem.
It’s time to send an unequivocal message to EMG and other patent trolls, that the White House, Congress, and the American people are tired of their attacks on this nation’s innovation economy. The rules that allow trolls to slow down our economic recovery are about to change.
Michael Beckerman is president and CEO of The Internet Association, a trade group representing leading Internet companies.
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