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Patent trolls launched majority of U.S. patent cases in 2012

A new study has found that more than half of last year's patent litigation cases in the U.S. were filed by companies that license patents but don't have another business.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
2 min read

It's hip to be litigious.

In case the spat between Apple and Samsung, and myriad other tussles between tech giants weren't proof enough, comes a new study that says lawsuits filed by patent trolls last year made up the majority of patent-related complaints filed in the U.S.

The study, which was published by UC Hastings and Lex Machina this morning, analyzed about 13,000 cases spanning some 30,000 patents. It's a follow-up to last October's look at some 100 lawsuits, which found that lawsuits from patent firms were up 22 percent in the past five years.

All told, 56 percent of the patent-related lawsuits filed in the U.S. last year were filed by "patent monetization entities," the study found. That's any company that licenses patents but doesn't actually have any other business. Informally, such companies are known as patent trolls.

Other findings include the fact that newly-issued patents tend to be the ones that are most often used in lawsuits, and that there's a growing business for buying and selling patents that have expired because of laws that still give them some punch.

"U.S. law allows for retrospective collection of infringement damages for up to six years," the study notes. "This suggests the presence of what could be described as a separate market offering residual value for expired patents."


The study also found "woefully inadequate" tools in place for notifying people when patents have been used against others in litigation.

"Although, federal law requires that district courts notify the Patent & Trademark Office when patents are asserted, and the Patent & Trademark Office then notifies the public, the system was not operative for more than one-third of the patents asserted in our database," the study said.

"This lack of notice puts small companies, particularly startups, at a disadvantage because they cannot easily tell if a patent has been asserted and what territory is being claimed by the patent holder," it added.

The study comes as tech companies including Google, BlackBerry, and others are asking the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice to scrutinize NPEs, which they say are "hurting" consumers and small businesses. Google in particular is attempting to develop corporative licensing agreements, whereas Twitter last April introduced what it called the "Innovator's Patent Agreement," which says its patents will "only be used for defensive purposes."

You can read the entire study right here.