It seems like everyone in Washington, D.C.—from President Obama to a growing number of lawmakers—loves to hate patent trolls, those who aggressively snap up patents, then sue unsuspecting companies to collect licensing fees. But Robert Berman, an admitted patent troll, insists he’s one of the good guys. Berman, who licensed the V-chip when he ran Acacia’s patent-assertion business, recently took over CopyTele, a 30-year-old tech-development company with 53 patents. Some might call it extortion (Obama came close), but Berman defends the patent-assertion trade as a viable business model corrupted by bad actors.
Is your company a patent troll?
To the extent we don’t sell products and services, sure, we are a patent troll. There is a legitimate business here that we provide to inventors and other businesses. The problem is when you paint all companies with a single brush as one type.
How are you different than the patent trolls targeted by policymakers?
Our business model is not to collect license fees or harass 1,500 or 2,000 people who don’t have the expertise to what is being alleged. We go after companies that are manufacturers or sellers of a product. What is also unethical is to approach someone and say, "Pay me because it’s cheaper than litigating." We don’t engage in nuisance lawsuits. We don’t form shell companies and try to play hide the ball.
What do you think about the Federal Trade Commission looking into these practices?
The FTC will find some practices that cross the line, but I also think they will find there are companies like mine that provide legitimate services. I applaud the FTC for trying to reform the industry.
There seems to be a lot of patents for common industry practices like pull-down menus or links in an SMS message.
Some of these patents seem commonsensical now, but they weren’t at the time it was invented. We need a better-funded patent office. If you have poor quality coming out of the system, it poisons the system.
Is the patent office giving out too many patents?
They don’t hand them out like candy. They’re expensive and hard to get, and the majority end up not being worth anything. But in a new technology area, before the [Patent and Trademark Office] gets their arms around it, they issue patents. So sometimes there needs to be a correction later on like the patent for the human genome project.
So if you don’t sell a product or service, who benefits from your business?
It’s difficult to bring your technology to market yourself. There are barriers to entry. If you invent something, you come to me to help monetize it. We provide a service inventors can’t do on their own. IP (intellectual property) is property. It’s no different than any kind of property. We are a knowledge-based economy. When someone gets a patent, it’s a contract between the inventor and the government for sharing it with the world.
What advice do you have for advertisers or marketers that get hit with a patent assertion letter?
Hopefully, with the FTC looking into this, these kinds of practices will stop. But they can’t throw the letters into the trash. It’s a cost of doing business. They have to take it to their lawyer.
What action should Congress take?
Technology moves faster than the law. There are some abuses going on. But patents award people for innovating, so Congress needs to be careful. If they go too far, it could take away people's incentive to innovate. But I’m not saying companies should be able to write thousands of letters and prey on people’s naivete.