Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Patent Trolls and the not Invented here Dragon

An inventor, long on imagination but short of capital, patents a wonderful invention. He approaches several companies to help him fund, manufacture and market his idea but is repeatedly turned away. Eventually, exhausted, he gives up on his invention. A few years later, he buys a product manufactured by one of these companies and, lo and behold, this product embodies his invention to the letter. The inventor offers to license the patent to the company but is turned away. He then files a lawsuit against the infringing company.

The lawsuit process is tough. The company lawyers use all the tricks in the book, but the claims of his inventions have been expertly written. The inventor scores a court victory and eventually the company must settle. Frustrated, one of the company executives calls the inventor a patent troll, implying that the company should get all the credit for bringing the invention to market and that he did not do any productive work, likening him to those unpleasant creatures who hide under bridges and exact a toll from unlucky travelers.

This lawsuit took place in 2006. The company was Intel. The inventor was represented by TechSearch, a company engaged in the business of purchasing, licensing and enforcing patents. Are you surprised?

The news media ran with the troll story: American Lawyer publication had an article beginning with “In the sleepy village of Santa Clara, there lived a very wealthy but very frightened giant named Intel. Intel was plagued by a fearsome band of evil trolls – patent trolls to be exact – who wanted a glittering pot of gold in exchange for doing absolutely nothing. They were very powerful because they said they owned the patent on some of the magic Intel used to become rich.”

The metaphor of patent trolls was used by large corporations such as Intel and Microsoft to spur Congress to change the patent system and adopt the patent reform act possibly more appropriately dubbed “the anti-patent reform act.” The Texas congressman stated: “I think patent trolls are abusing the system.” The aim of this act was to introduce changes that would reduce the rights of the small inventors. This bill which favors infringers and large companies at the expense of the small inventor is currently before Congress. It includes:

1) Provisions that will give defendants additional ways to combat infringement allegations and limit damages.

2) A “first to file” system to replace the “first to conceive” system. This will favor large companies with readily available attorneys at the expense of individual inventors.

Large companies are the biggest trolls of all. They use their large patent lawyer teams to eliminate competitors using methods such as:

1) the ‘’Shotgun’’ strategy: obtaining as many patents as possible in a particular area of technology;

2) the “Blanketing” and “flooding” strategy: turning an area into a minefield of patents, for example by systematically covering with patents every step in a manufacturing process;

3) the “Picket Fence” strategy: erecting a patent fence against competitors to block them from making any improvement to their products;

4) the “Surrounding” strategy: walling in an important patent with lesser patents to block the effective commercial use of the central patent, even after its expiration; and

5) the “Scarecrow” strategy: filing patents to discourage competitors from investing in a technical area to be protected. More information about patent strategies are available on the Web

Calling small inventors trolls and changing the patent system to reduce their rights will only weaken our innovation strength and our competitive advantage in the world.

We are living in the age of the Internet and have the tools to make the patent marketplace readily available. We ought to encourage the flow and sharing of information including the availability and marketability of patents. There is no excuse for a large company to deny funding to a small inventor of a good idea simply because he does not have the means to defend himself in court.

If small inventors behave as patent trolls it is because too often they are faced with the “Not Invented Here” Dragon. Instead of chasing the troll, let’s slay this dragon by making sure that the patent marketplace is open for all to see.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

For archived newsletters and a lot of information for the small inventor go to: www.patentsandventures.com.

If you have any question you can contact me at (858)259-2226 or email me at glevy@patentsandventures.com.

This newsletter should not be construed as legal advice. ©2009 by George Levy

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Getting a Piece of the Stimulus Package Pie

As part of the stimulus package the US government has boosted the funding for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Technology Transfer Research (STTR). If you have an idea in a high priority field such as Energy or Education the federal government may provide you with the initial funding for your invention.

SBIR targets the entrepreneurial sector because that is where most innovation and innovators thrive. However, the risk and expense of conducting serious R&D efforts are often beyond the means of many small businesses. By reserving a specific percentage of federal R&D funds for small business, SBIR protects the small business and enables it to compete on the same level as larger businesses. SBIR funds the critical startup and development stages and it encourages the commercialization of the technology, product, or service, which, in turn, stimulates the U.S. economy.

The first step in writing an SBIR proposal is to go to SBIR.gov and study solicitations published by different government agencies.

Many government agencies have SBIR programs. The agencies with the earliest deadline include the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Health. (NIH)

The NSF announced the release of its 2010 SBIR Phase I solicitation. $45,000,000 will be available for 200-300 awards. These competitive research awards will be capped at $150,000 per award. Companies must outline how they will utilize these funds to conduct a 6-month feasibility study. Companies must prepare proposals that will address subtopics found under each of these main topics:

Biotechnology and Chemical Technologies

Education Applications

Information and Communication Technology

Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials

Successful proposals cover R&D on projects that provide evidence of a commercially viable product, process, device, or system AND/OR meet an important social or economic need. All projects should have High potential commercial payback and High-risk efforts.

For more details and proposal preparation instructions, refer to the NSF solicitation.

All proposals for the NSF SBIR programs are due before 5:00 PM on Thursday, December 3rd (the registration process, necessary before you submit your proposal, might take a few weeks--Start early!).

The NIH is another government agency with open solicitations. The deadline for submission is November 9, 2009. Research topics can be found at the NIH SBIR site.

2009 Fall National SBIR Conference, Reno, NV, November 2-5, 2009. The conference will bring together federal program administrators from all of the SBIR participating agencies, venture capital and angel investors, large companies, secondary market and traditional lenders, university and federal laboratory representatives and other experts who provide assistance or are interested in doing business with early-stage ventures. Participants will also hear presentations by SBIR award winners who have successfully commercialized their research, and learn about opportunities while networking with peers involved in innovation. For more information visit the conference website at http://www.unr.edu/sbir-sttr2009 .

If you plan to apply for an SBIR grant you will need to have a Duns and Bradstreet number and an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS, Obtaining these numbers may be time consuming processes and it is a good idea to get them several weeks before the proposal deadline.

SBIR grants usually target state of the art technical fields. To provide more credibility to the SBIR reviewers, you should try to associate yourself with people very knowledgeable in the field of your proposal, for example academics or people who are well known through their publications.

For archived newsletters and information resources for the small inventor go to: www.patentsandventures.com.

If you have any question you can contact me at (858)259-2226 or email me at glevy@patentsandventures.com.

This newsletter should not be construed as any form of legal advice. ©2009 by George Levy