the Patent Examiner, a company called Innovatio IP Ventures is suing individual branches of hotel chains for use of Wi-Fi. Though I'm staunchly against software patents – and by extension software patent lawsuits – I think this is a good thing.According to
The company is launching a "systematic campaign" according to Matthew McAndrews, the lead litigator for Innovatio. The company is trying to shake down "several hundred" defendants for $2,300 to $5,000. Says McAndrews, "We want you to continue to use this technology, we just want our client to get his due share. This is not a seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-night shakedown."
It's Finally Come to This
McAndrews is right, it's not a fly-by-nigh shakedown – it's the logical next step in an out-of-control system where software patent suits pass for innovation.
As long as patent suits are confined to the tech industry, the odds of meaningful change to the patent system seem extremely small. Suits between tech giants like Google and Oracle are considered part of the cost of doing business. Suits by tech giants against smaller players are too valuable a tactic for companies to pass up.Suits against practicing tech companies by patent trolls that are non-practicing entities (NPEs) are seen as a hassle, but defensible.
In short, while there's a lot of hang-wringing about patents in the tech industry, it's not well-known outside. The dangers of software patents are only just starting to be talked about in mainstream media.
The Trolls Are Coming, The Trolls Are Coming!
But now, patent trolls are starting to branch out to other businesses. This is a good thing – because at some point, we'll have to hit a tipping point where it's blatantly obvious how badly the system needs to be reformed.
If the patent trolls confine themselves to the tech industry, it'll take another decade for serious reform. If the patent trolls start hitting hotel chains, small businesses and other non-tech companies en masse they might just trigger the kind of public outrage that we need to effect change.
Right now, Innovatio says it won't be targeting individuals – maybe they will, maybe they won't. Over on ZDNet, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols says "You may open your mail sometime soon to find a demand for a three-figure licensing fee for your use home Wi-Fi use."
This is the best possible thing that could happen. I know, it sounds crazy – software patent suits are exactly what we don't want more of, right? Ideally, yes. But the software patent threat has been growing unrestrained for years with little attention. It seems the only way we'll have any real change is if everybody is made aware of the problem. I can't think of a more effective way for this to happen than companies like Innovatio going after non-tech businesses hundreds at a time. Even better for a company to have the audacity to go after individuals.
Cisco and Motorola are going after Innovatio, trying to have their patents ruled invalid (PDF). Normally, I'd cheer them on – but I kind of hope they fail here. Not because Innovatio deserves to win, but because we've finally reached the point where the absurdity of software patents might actually get the public's attention.