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Patent troll

There are two sorts of companies in the high-tech world today. Some invent things, manufacture them, and bring them to market. Others register or buy patents, not in order to develop them, but in order to collect money from other firms whose products they consider to be covered by the patents. A polite term for the latter is patent troll.

Though it was coined by the former Intel assistant general counsel Peter Detkin in 2001 and is first recorded in print that year, it only began to appear at all commonly in early 2005. It has since been widely used in newspaper reports on lawsuits, such as the one in which a patent holding company sued the manufacturers of the BlackBerry e-mail device for infringement and settled for $612.5m.

Some commentators say that a US Supreme Court judgement in May 2006 may limit the patent-trolling, though others argue that the real problem lies with an understaffed and overburdened US patent system, working by outdated rules, that cannot cope with today’s fast-moving technological landscape.

The term probably derives from an old sense of troll for a way of fishing in which lines are trailed behind a moving boat. In turn, that may be from an old confusion with trawl or trail. Troll has long been known online as the name for a person who posts provocative messages to a discussion group with the aim of creating a slanging match. The word also links into the folktale concept of a troll as an ugly, malevolent being, especially one who sits under a bridge and demands a toll from passers-by, even though he had nothing to do with the creation of the bridge.

Critics of the U.S. patent system ... have argued the patent system is riddled with abuse, mainly from “patent trolls,” or small businesses that sue established companies to enforce patents for ideas that have never been developed into products.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 15 May 2006

RIM’s defense throughout the case was that NTP was merely a “patent troll,” hoarding an innovation it never intended to use.

InternetNews, 18 April 2006

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 Jun. 2006

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 17 June 2006.