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HBO series brings patent trolls into the limelight

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For those who thought trolls only exist in children's books, think again. In the intellectual property world, patent trolls are a reality.

In the HBO series, Silicon Valley, the viewing audience (and the show's characters) are introduced to Stuart "Stu" Burke, a man who makes his money working as a patent troll. Unfortunately for main character Richard Hendricks, Stu reveals how patent laws can be twisted and abused by threatening Richard with patent infringement.

What is a patent troll?

Patents are used to keep others from copying or using something you created without your permission, including:

  • Inventions
  • Designs
  • Technological processes, such as apps

Patent trolls, formally referred to as Non-Practicing Entities (NPEs) or Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs), don't actually create anything. They purchase patents and enforce them against others.

For example, Stu in Silicon Valley purchased an unused and vaguely worded patent. Because the language of the patent was not very specific, it could apply to a number of inventions. Stu targets Richard's Pied Piper Space Saver app and demands a $20,000 licensing fee. While there was probably no merit to Stu's demands, Richard would have needed to invest a lot of time, money and energy to prove otherwise.

Patent trolls know that those they threaten often do not have the resources to fight their claims. Individuals and entities pay the patent trolls to simply go away: Relatively easy money for the trolls.

How do I defend myself from patent trolls?

There are a number of steps you can take to your creations. A skilled intellectual property attorney can help you with the patent process, which includes:

  • Verifying the novelty and originality of your invention
  • Preparing the invention disclosure
  • Applying for the patent

Carefully worded and drafted documents can make a world of difference.

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