Microsoft VP explains why company fights patent trolls and defends open-source ecosystem

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What you need to know

  • Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs), sometimes dubbed "patent trolls," hit companies with patent infringement lawsuits.
  • These lawsuits can often be of a dubious nature, but many times result in a win for the PAEs simply because the price of shutting down the trolls in court is costlier than paying the blackmail amount.
  • Big companies such as Microsoft have joined the fight against patent trolls to safeguard the open-source realm.

Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) are sometimes called "patent trolls" because their schtick is filing questionable lawsuits against companies in the hopes that their claims will score them easy money. Never mind the fact that often the patents being used to prop up the lawsuits in question aren't legitimate ammo for whatever legal claims are being asserted. The point is, the legal system often costs more upfront than blackmail, so many companies tend to pay up (opens in new tab) when a PAE comes knocking since proper litigation carries a higher price. That's why Microsoft is contributing to the fight against patent troll activity: To protect open-source operations and entities that may not have the resources to defend themselves.

Burton Davis, Microsoft VP and Deputy General Counsel, weighed in on the matter with the following statement (via ZDNet): "Low-quality patents continue to be a drain on innovation in the software industry and a threat to open source. Microsoft is committed to doing what it can to protect open-source from patent threats and to prevent low-quality patents from harming innovation."

Davis also reiterated Microsoft's commitment to the "valuable resource" that is the open-source ecosystem.

Microsoft joined United Patents' Open Source Software Zone (OSS Zone) alongside the Linux Foundation to help keep bad patents at bay. Heavy hitters entering the fight against patent trolls take some of the pressure off small open-source entities from having to defend themselves and help more easily build publicly documented histories that protect open-source communities by making it easier to debunk frivolous lawsuits.

Robert Carnevale is the News Editor for Windows Central. He's a big fan of Kinect (it lives on in his heart), Sonic the Hedgehog, and the legendary intersection of those two titans, Sonic Free Riders. He is the author of Cold War 2395. Have a useful tip? Send it to

  • Patent trolls are bad, but I don't want people to confuse them with actual innovators who seek patent protection to help them grow and build a product or business. The key difference is that the patent troll attacks a successful product on an existing patent, generally where that product was developed without the use of the patent and just as often without even being aware there was such a patent. That's effectively leeching off the success and work of others, and clearly not helpful to anyone (other than the patent holder). Worse, patent trolls typically buy up patents to set up these blackmail opportunities, roughly the IP equivalent to an ambulance chasing attorney. In fact, most patent trolls are attorneys. On the other hand, for smaller companies, patents may be the only way to successfully enter a competitive market. Larger companies have their brand and marketing budget and sales forces to win customers and crush smaller companies trying to break in and compete with them. In some cases, a patent is the only viable defense against that, increasing competition and encouraging true innovation. Further, the idea will only become successful if it truly does lower costs or create new capabilities (otherwise, customers will stick with the existing proven options). In this way, patents help customers and the market. This is the entire philosophy behind patent law: protect the innovators by granting temporary (20-year) exclusive rights to monetize the invention to encourage new products and incent investors to fund them, in exchange for making the idea public. All patents are public, but the rights to monetize remain with the patent holder until they expire. So, morale here: patents are good and an important tool for entrepreneurs, but when collected by patent trolls to take money from existing products on the market, they can indeed be abused. Last point: one of the requirements for a patent in patent law is "diligence in reduction to practice," which means you can't just sit on the idea. In order to be granted the protection of a patent, the inventor is obligated to use his or her reasonable efforts to bring it to market. Patent trolling runs 180 degrees counter to that.
  • Great additions as always, Colin.