Privateering--the act of large companies giving patents to patent assertion entities (PAEs)--is (unfortunately) not illegal (yet), but it is abusive, antisocial behavior. It pollutes the legal environment and harms the economy. It has nothing to do with protecting legitimate innovation: legitimate innovators suffer from it because it drives up litigation and licensing costs, and deep-pocketed, sophisticated legitimate patent holders don't need third parties to strike deals with their industry peers. Privateering also gives patents in general and patent transfers in particular a bad name.
I'm asking you for your help to shed some light on this problem. Below you can find the first version of my list of known privateering deals, and if you're aware of any other verifiable transactions of this kind, please fill out this blog's contact form. I need a link to a press release or other public statement, a trustworthy media report, or a publicly accessible court filing. Sources won't be disclosed. The industry focus here is on everything relevant to smartphones (including mobile network infrastructure), tablet computers, and the various technologies they incorporate (such as operating systems and multimedia codecs).
There's no deadline for this. Depending on how much input I receive and when, I'll update the list, maybe once, maybe several times. In the very near term I may also add items to the list below.
So far it appears that no company has engaged in troll-feeding to nearly the same extent as Nokia (which celebrates its 150th anniversary today). By contrast, only one sale of Apple patents to a patent troll is known, and that was a long time ago, so privateering is not in Apple's DNA despite this regrettable but apparently isolated incident. So let's build a comprehensive list of privateering transactions.
Digitude Innovations (sale of patents via Cliff Island LLC, a shell company)
BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion)
BT (British Telecom)
Helsinki Memory Technologies (Nokia's patent deal with them is not about memory technology patents but covers wireless patents, including SEPs)
MobileMedia Ideas (with Sony)
WiLAN (patent acquisition agreement mentioned in connection with license agreement)
MobileMedia Ideas (with Nokia)
[Update] First, thanks to those who have already proposed additions to the list above (most of which I've already incorporated). Second, I got some reactions on Twitter from IP professionals taking issue with the term "patent trolls" and fearing that this was a "witch hunt." Let me assure you that I used the term "patent trolls" in the headline just to increase the likelihood of people seeing this on Twitter and contributing information to the list. Obviously the patent licensing/assertion entities listed above aren't all the same in terms of how they act. There are differences. As for the operating companies, I've bought products from most of them, used Ericsson products indirectly (their base stations) and have said positive things about another company's products just based on what I learned about them from reliable sources. This blog here is mostly read by people with a strong, typically professional interest in IP issues: an audience that I believe is for the most part interested in shedding light on privateering transactions, not in name calling. This "crowdsourcing" effort was my idea and I didn't even discuss it with anybody before I went ahead and did this post. The idea came up because I had a hard time finding out about how the scope and scale of Nokia's troll-feeding compared to that of others, though it was clear to me from the beginning that Nokia was the worst offender in this respect, by far and away. [/Update]
[Update 2] I've received an email from a reader who said "[a] patent privateer not only receives patents from an operating company to pursue competitors, but also returns money to that operating company." In some cases it is verifiable that this is the case (Unwired Planet, Mosaid). In other cases the contract terms are not known. Feeding "patent trolls" is a bad thing and harms the selling company's peers regardless of specific terms, though I do agree that pseudo-transfers such as in the Unwired Planet case are the most problematic deal type. If you're aware of more pseudo-sale type of deals, please point me to publicly verifiable information and I may (though I can't promise that I'll find the time, or when) talk about them the way I talked about Ericsson's contract with Unwired Planet. [/Update 2]
If you'd like to be updated on the smartphone patent disputes and other intellectual property matters I cover, please subscribe to my RSS feed (in the right-hand column) and/or follow me on Twitter @FOSSpatents and Google+.
Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: