John Oliver Takes on Patent Trolls

In this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the TV funnyman turns his wit toward patent trolls, which he says have cost the United States $500 trillion dollars in frivolous lawsuits.

Oliver starts off the bit by pointing out that patents are important and necessary to inventors. For instance, the judges on the hit show Shark Tank won’t even look at a business idea if it isn’t patented. Except, that is, for the “once in a lifetime investment opportunity” by the inventor of a website called “I Want to Draw You a Cat.”

Oliver warns that the patent process has become corrupted in recent years by patent trolls. One example is the story of a man named Austin Meyer who invented a popular mobile app for Android and received a frightening letter. A company called Uniloc was filing suit against the inventor for patent infringement. Uniloc told Meyer it owned the idea of a computer program checking a central server for authorization.

Meyer said that’s the technology on which every Android app is based. The patent would entitle Uniloc to a percentage of every Android app in existence. Oliver says that means the company is even due a piece of everything the Tinder app has created, including a pile of STDs and millions of shards of human self esteem.

Patent trolls don’t invent or sell anything. They just buy patents and then threaten lawsuits. There were 4,700 patent lawsuits filed in 2012 alone, and fully 3,000 were brought to bear by patent trolls. The White House says patent trolls account for 62% of all patent lawsuits. The lawsuits have cost investors an estimated $500,000,000,000 dollars since 1990.

john oliver patent trolls patentsRelated: The Grandparent Scam: How This Trick Cons Seniors

According to Oliver, in order to lose that much of other people’s money, Johnny Depp would have had to appear in The Lone Ranger more than a hundred times each year for 25 years.

One patent troll even threatened to sue a company that helps disabled people for nothing more than using a photocopier which the troll said it owned patent rights to. Oliver said when you attempt to sue a company that helps the disabled for using their own photocopier, “you’re not just on the road to hell. You have your own parking spot right next to the devil.”

john oliver patent trollsThe patent office, says Oliver, is supposed to grant patents on inventions that are useful, new and not obvious. The same qualities, says Oliver, that Tom Cruise seeks in an ideal mate. However, in times of rapid technological gain like the 19th century during the railroad boom or in recent years with the software explosion, the patent office can become overwhelmed and grant patents on inventions that don’t meet their own criteria.

The problem is that while mechanical patents are specific, software patents can be so generalized that they can grant someone rights to an invention they never thought of when they filed for the patent. By that logic, Oliver says someone who thought to patent “Computer Thing That Never Works,” they could have become very rich by suing FaceTime.

john oliver patent trolls draw you a catSince it costs between $2 million and $5 million to fight a patent suit, more than 90% of all patent suit victims settle out of court for less.

Nearly 25% of all patent troll lawsuits are filed in Marshall, Texas. Tech companies have subsequently gone to great lengths to build good relations with the people of the small East Texas town. Samsung went as far as to build a public ice skating rink right outside the steps of the courthouse.

“Do you know how hard it is to maintain an ice skating rink in Texas?” says Oliver. “It’s like building a bowling alley in space.”

An anti patent troll bill was stopped from being passed into law, Oliver says, because trial lawyers stopped it, fearing decreased revenues from a decline in patent troll lawsuits. Oliver says giving trial lawyers input into regulation of lawsuits is like putting raccoons in charge of garbage can placement.

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