The Real Cost of Patent Trolls

James Bessen, Jennifer Ford, and Michael Meurer of BU School of Law have written a phenomenal paper titled The Private and Social Costs of Patent Trolls. Rather than be politically correct and refer to NPE’s simply as “non-practicing entities”, they cut through all the noise, define what a patent troll is, and go through a detailed and rigorous analysis of the private and social costs of patent trolls. Some highlights from the paper follow:

Regarding money:

  • From 1990 – 2010 NPE lawsuits are associated with $500 billion dollars of lost wealth to defendants.
  • In the past four years, NPE lawsuits are associated with an average of $80 billion per year of lost wealth to defendants.
  • Very little of this loss wealth represents a transfer to inventors.

The litigation has distinctive characteristics:

  • It is focused on software and related technologies.
  • It targets firms that have already developed technology.
  • Most of these lawsuits involve multiple large companies as defendants.

The authors suggest that these lawsuits exploit weaknesses in the patent system. They conclude that the loss of billions of dollars of wealth associated with these lawsuits harm society and state “while the lawsuits increase incentives to acquire vague, over-reaching patents, they decrease incentives for real innovation overall.”

While I’ve just summarized the executive summary, the paper is extremely well written, the topic rigorously researched, and the conclusions follow from the actual data. The footnotes are a joy to read as they tackle a few previous papers that use completely contorted logic to make their points. My favorite is footnote 6:

“In effect, Shrestha is arguing: A) Valuable patents receive higher citations, and, B) NPE litigated patents receive higher citations, therefore, C) NPE litigated patents are valuable patents. This is a classic logical fallacy.”

It’s a special bonus that the header on each page says “page # – Troll – 9/11″.

My partner Jason and I were talking about exactly the problem the other day as we wondered why so many people have trouble with logic and deductive reasoning. Our world of software patents is rife with this category of problem. It’s awesome that serious academics like Bessen and his colleagues are going deep into this issue.