GAO: Patent trolls aren’t really a problem

August 30, 2013

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

As I wrote about in an earlier column, “patent troll” is the buzzword (buzz phrase?) du jour these days, especially among those who complain that the patent system is outmoded (I’m looking at you, Google and Apple).

The results of a recently concluded government investigation, however, suggest that when it comes to patent trolls — shell businesses that hold patents but don’t do anything with them except wait to financially exploit them when another company comes to need them — there may be more smoke than fire.

That investigation, by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, was discussed in a report released last week that looked at the impact “non-practicing entities” are having on lawsuits filed over patents.

The report found that NPEs/patent trolls accounted for just a hair under 20 percent of patent litigation instigated between 2001 and 2010. The other 80 percent came from “practicing entities,” meaning businesses that actually use patents.

So, in other words, patent trolls are involved in just a fifth of patent lawsuits.

The Silicon Valley attorney who helped the GAO prepare the report issued a supremely neutral statement to the Los Angeles Times, making the controversial declaration that the report “has pointed out that (patent litigation) is a sophisticated problem.”

Yes, sophisticated. That’s one word for it.

Keeping in mind that this is but one report (albeit one that seems pretty credible), these findings cast an interesting light on all the whining that Google, Apple and their ilk have done about patent trolls. I don’t have any more sympathy for patent trolls than I did before reading this report (okay, most of this report. I mean, it’s 61 pages of government-speak), but I do look toward Silicon Valley with a more jaundiced eye.