MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Patent trolls, companies that hold patents and live off challenges to other companies, are about to be the target of an aggressive advertising campaign. A group of retail trade organizations is launching radio and print ads in 17 states. The goal is to raise awareness of how patent trolls are draining resources from business and raising prices for customers.
NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Patents are one of those topics that make a lot of people's eyes glaze over, but the radio ad is working hard to bring drama to a dry subject.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Imagine you start the business of your dreams. You open your doors, work day and night, and that one store turns into ten, but then you get a letter from a patent troll.
SYDELL: A patent troll doesn't make or sell anything. It's a company that has a bunch of patents that may not be very good, but it goes around demanding licensing fees from businesses that do make and sell stuff.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The troll claims to hold a patent on a common business practice like...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The store locator map on your website.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And says...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Either you pay us $100,000 or we'll sue you for everything you've got.
SYDELL: It's usually cheaper to pay than go to court. The ads sure make it sound like patent trolls are getting in the way of the American dream. Erik Lieberman says that is exactly what patent trolls are doing. Lieberman is the regulatory counsel for the Food Marketing Institute, one of the trade groups paying for the ads.
ERIK LIEBERMAN: They are posing a very big barrier to entrepreneurship in this country.
SYDELL: Not only that, says Lieberman, businesses are paying out a lot of money to settle with trolls.
LIEBERMAN: The billions of dollars that we're facing in costs, many of those get passed on to consumers, so this is a consumer issue, too.
SYDELL: Among the other groups behind the ad campaign is the National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation. For many years, a lot of companies that make new technologies and develop software were the targets of these so-called trolls. But Lieberman says now they target grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops.
LIEBERMAN: We are not, for the most part, developing these new technologies. We're simply using them.
SYDELL: There is a less derogatory name for companies that own a lot of patents, non-practicing entities or NPEs. One of the NPEs that Lieberman cites is targeting JC Penney, FootLocker, American Eagle Outfitters and Macy's. The company says it's got a patent on a JPEG file. If you've gotten a photo in an email, it's often a JPEG file. Lots of businesses use them to send out promotional photos.
President Obama has said these kinds of companies are abusing the patent system and Congress has several legislative proposals on the table to try and curb the business of NPEs. So, not surprisingly, the anti-patent troll ads ask you to...
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tell Congress to stop bad patents and stop the trolls.
SYDELL: But easier said than done. Patent attorney Andrew Williams says even if there are some bad actors out there, there are a lot of perfectly good patents and inventors who deserve to get paid for their ideas.
ANDREW WILLIAMS: The question is, just how do you deal with it in Congress? How do you legislate to, as they put it, stop bad patents?
SYDELL: The issue is a rare one in Washington, in that both Democrats and Republicans agree it's a problem. The trade associations hope that by putting a little spotlight on it, the two parties might feel pressure to actually do something about it. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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