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Everyone in the intellectual property community will be aware that the debate over the activity of “patent trolls” has lasted years, and has always contained plenty of heat and not a lot of light. The heat shows no sign of diminishing, as journalists realise that there’s an easy story to file in a day trip to Tyler or Beaumont to look at a corridor of brass plated doors with no-one behind them – but there are at least some attempts to shine a light under the bridge to see what these trolls really look like. The latest of these is the recently announced proposal for a collection of information by the Federal Trade Commission (the FTC).
There has been little unanimity on what a patent troll is – except than that no definition ever covers the commercial activity of whoever is making the definition. It has even been difficult to find a neutral generic term for such behaviour. We used to use NPE (“Non Practising Entity”), to distinguish patent owners only interested in licensing from patent holders who used patents to support their own commercial activity in selling products and services. This term fell out of use when it was appreciated that one class of NPEs is long established, generally respected, and considered by most to be behaving in an acceptable way with its stock of intellectual property – such NPEs are often known as “universities”.