Editor’s note: Melissa Roberts is urging the Kansas City business community to sign a petition that aims to halt an effort to establish Kansas City as an area friendly to “patent trolls.” The commenting period on the proposed changes closes 5 p.m., Nov. 26. The opinions in the commentary are the author’s alone.
I used to think that the only time people were attacked by trolls was in fairytales.
This week, trolls of another kind have come out from underneath the bridge and are attempting to lay waste to our efforts to build a vibrant startup community in Kansas City. And whether you’re a Prince or Princess Charming, only you can stop them.
Chances are if you’ve been active in the startup community, you’ve come to understand the role of non-practicing entities, often called “patent trolls.” These organizations buy broad, poorly-defined patents and sue growing companies that are developing tangentially related products. The practice is often performed with the goal of forcing them into expensive settlements to avoid even more expensive litigation.
In short it’s a racket, perpetuated by companies that have no intention of creating anything of economic value. And it stops startups from creating anything at all by sapping them of valuable resources.
They really ought to be called patent vampires because their legal dark arts have a similarly depleting effect of the lifeblood of our economic growth.
For instance, one of the most famous patent troll cases of recent years was perpetrated by a Texas-based company called “Personal Audio LLC”, which owns a patent for online, episodic audio content. Their claim in court was that all podcasters, everywhere, owed them money for fair use of their patented system. This company does not create or broadcast content. They have created no platforms. They just believe that they own the right to license every podcast ever created. Ludicrous — no?
That Texas-based company is one of many that have chosen to relocate to the Eastern District of Texas, because that community has adopted plaintiff-friendly policies that give the suing parties a distinct advantage over those being sued. If you intend to sue someone, you have as long as you want to prepare your case. Respondents (the sue-ees) only have time from the moment they’re served and the shock wears off to start thinking about it. When those people being sued generally are smaller, have fewer resources and are less organized, it puts plaintiffs (the sue-ers) at a compounded advantage.
The rules Kansas District Court proposes are strikingly similar to those that exist in East Texas, and would establish a similarly patent troll-friendly process here.
This issue, unfortunately, is bigger than just our region. Under current rules, startups from across the country might be forced to travel to Kansas City as respondents in these cases. It’s safe to say that when we aspire to attract entrepreneurs from across the country, this isn’t what we mean.
Sure, creating a “forced tourism” industry might fill a few hotel rooms temporarily — at least until the VENUE Act passes Congress and the entire patent troll industry loses its ability to try cases in courts they already know to be friendly to their claims. But to establish Kansas City as a hub for patent troll litigation would be to undo all the work our city elected, appointed and business leaders — not to mention, entrepreneurs like us — have done to establish our region as a hub for startup activity.
In short, our community is at risk of becoming known as a place that crushes startups — not encourages them. And because our window of opportunity to weigh in on this issue closes this Saturday, Nov. 26 at 5 p.m., the many people across the country who would be affected by these rules probably won’t hear about them until it’s too late.
Our startup community has an opportunity to step up and make a difference for growing businesses across the country, and we’ve got four days to do it. Sign on to this petition to ensure your voice is heard, and share it widely. The future of our city as a startup hub depends on it.