Patent trolls, egregious abusers of the patent system though they may be, have thus far not been a direct bother for the average end user. Any headaches they may have caused have been reserved for the developers that must litigate with them, while the ill effects on the end user have been more subtle: slower progress resulting in the absence of as yet unimagined innovations, and higher prices to fund teams of troll-slaying lawyers. That soon may change.
This article reports on a company whose innovative trolling technique of patenting the methods used to plug security holes will add the prospect of buggy, virus ridden, and generally insecure software to the end user's burden.
Intellectual Weapons offers to patent the fix to any software vulnerability brought to them, take the developer who dares fix their own software to court, and split the winnings down the middle with the discoverer of the hole. (The over-the-top graphics on the site, as well as the brazenly patent abusive name of the whole endeavor, are enough to raise suspicions of satire. Unfortunately, a thorough read of the site lends little support to such hope.)
The company defends its business model when it addresses the question (shamelessly placed in its FAQ), “Is it ethical?” The problem, apparently, is that up till now the workers who fix vulnerabilities have been compensated only by their salaries, whereas “the unique feature here is that the vendor is asked to pay something close to the true value of the vulnerability i.e. the cost to them if it goes unchecked.” Never mind that most pieces of major software are patched dozens of times, often to fix vulnerabilities that would render the software completely useless. That is to say, never mind that the cost of each vulnerability may be the cost of the entire piece of software, making the total Intellectual Weapons imagines due to them more than the value of the piece of software, many times over.
If you're still not convinced that Intellectual Weapons is acting ethically, they point out that efforts to label them as “patent trolls” are part of various “well-funded PR efforts to vilify small companies that enforce their patents against large companies.” (This unpaid intern can refute at least the “well-funded” part.) Finally, Intellectual Weapons points out that patent hoarding bears that famous mark of integrity: Other people have made a lot of money doing it.
Even if these excuses actually amounted to an ethical defense of the practice in question, one justification would still be noticeably absent: any claim that what Intellectual Weapons is doing promotes the progress of the useful arts, which is, of course, what patents are supposed to be for.