First Blackberry…now NTP is setting its sights on wireless email providers and targeting mobile devices such as PDAs, cell phones and smart phones that are capable of sending emails. What next… the laptop? NTP filed lawsuits against Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile claiming infringement of eight (8) of its patents. The lawsuits, filed in Federal District Court in Virginia, seek an injunction against the sale of these devices. Lawsuits like these threaten to deprive people of continued use of legitimately purchased products and services.
What makes these lawsuits so outrageous is that NTP doesn't even produce any products or services. All they did was acquire rights to about 50 patents, and sue companies that refuse to license its patents. The extremely broad scope of NTP's patents only makes matters worse by threatening to bring a wide range of products and services within its scope.
This is definitely a case for patent reform. Any reform effort must ensure that companies like NTP lose the incentive to make a business out of being infringed. In a previous post, I noted that under current law, courts have often awarded astronomical amounts of damages to prevailing patent holders. This encourages patent holding companies, like NTP, to sue for infringement and make a huge profit. Fortunately, efforts for reform are underway in Congress. The House has already passed the Patent Reform Bill (H.R. 1908) and the Senate is considering a similar Bill (S.1145). Both of these Bills propose to change the way damages are calculated for infringement by proportioning the damages to the value of the patent.
Reform is also needed to ensure that patents as broad as NTP's are not issued by the USPTO. NTP's patents extend to all ways of sending emails using wireless communications regardless of the devices and methods used in the process. For example, if someone were to invent a method of receiving emails over a wireless medium, but used a different software program than NTP's, they would be infringing NTP's patents. This gives NTP a monopoly over technologies it didn't even invent. To prevent this from happening, patent examiners need to be aided in examining applications.
Both Bills contain provisions that allow third parties to submit relevant documents and aid patent examiners in finding prior art. The Bills also provide a mechanism called post-grant review, that would give parties a less expensive alternative to litigation, to settle questions of patent validity.
This is a significant first step.