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Wouldn’t it be great to put a stop to patent trolling by, say, taking the troll’s patent away? That’s what Article One Partners want to do with a new crowd-funding campaign to flush out documents to show that a troll’s invention is obvious or not new.
The lucky troll at the center of the crowd-funding campaign is Treehouse Avatar Technologies, which is harassing game makers with U.S. Patent 8,180,858, which covers a “method” for game developers to see how many times player chooses a particular character trait.
Last month, the troll bullied Turbine Inc, which makes games like Dungeons & Dragons Online, into a settlement. Now, the troll will presumably use the money it extorted to hunt down other game makers (it has already sent out threatening letters) and demand that they too pay for the right to use its nonsense patent. And so its troll circle-of-life will continue — unless, that is, Article One’s $17,500 Indiegogo campaign can stop this rampage.
Killing trolls through crowd-funding seems like a long shot, but the good news is that Article One knows what it’s doing. Its business model involves paying rewards to researchers who dig up “prior art” that can knock out bad patents (Article One gets paid by its clients, which include tech and retail giants that face patent pressure).
According to CEO Marshall Phelps, the company, which usually works with major companies, is trying out the crowd-funding as a way to help smaller outfits — like game makers — that are bullied by trolls.
“The idea is that this is a bit of an experiment. Everybody talks about trolls and no one does something — it’s like the weather. We thought we’d use the community to deal with the most abrasive of the troll problems,” said Phelps by phone.
Small contributors to the Indiegogo campaign will receive things like t-shirts and mugs, while bigger donors will get consultations or dinners with Phelps and founder Cheryl Milone. If the Indiegogo campaign reaches its $17,500 goal, Article one will give the companies that being tormented by the troll access to the prior art database as well as advice from Milone. The project will then expand its fund-raising goals so another bad patent can be put on the hit list, and so on.
It’s a nice idea: it could provide a way to let small companies terrorized by trolls fight back with the help of fan communities and, maybe just maybe, knock out stupid patents like the one about character data.
But is it realistic? Probably not. In the game developer case, Treehouse Avatar Technologies appears to be a solitary troll, but in reality is controlled by Wi-Lan, a large corporation from Canada (for Canadians, the company is as much of an embarrassment as Nickelback).
While Apple recently gave Wi-Lan a good punch in the nose, sending its share price reeling, that sort of fight requires millions of dollars, and not the sort of chickenfeed you get from most crowd-funding campaign. And even if Turbine’s fans can help it find prior art that shows the patent is obvious, the game maker would still face an expensive trial to actually kill the patent. (Last month, a proposed low-cost measure to challenge stupid patents got crushed by Microsoft and IBM).
At best, the Indiegogo campaign may help to educate more people about America’s deeply dysfunctional patent system. But real reform will have to come through the promising Innovation Act in Congress or the Supreme Court, which last week announced it will review software patents.