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Joel on Software

The Patent Protection Racket

by Joel Spolsky
Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The fastest growing industry in the US right now, even during this time of slow economic growth, is probably the patent troll protection racket industry. Lawsuits surrounding software patents have more than tripled since 1999.

It’s a great business model.

Step one: buy a software patent. There are millions of them, and they’re all quite vague and impossible to understand.

Step two: FedEx a carefully crafted letter to a few thousand small software companies, iPhone app developers, and Internet startups. This is where it gets a tiny bit tricky, because the recipients of the letter need to think that it’s a threat to sue if they don’t pay up, but in court, the letter has to look like an invitation to license some exciting new technology. In other words it has to be just on this side of extortion.

Step three: wait patiently while a few thousand small software companies call their lawyers, and learn that it’s probably better just to pay off the troll, because even beginning to fight the thing using the legal system is going to cost a million dollars.

Step four: Profit!

What does this sound like? Yes, it’s a textbook case of a protection racket. It is organized crime, plain and simple. It is an abuse of the legal system, an abuse of the patent system, and a moral affront.

In the face of organized crime, civilized people don’t pay up. When you pay up, you’re funding the criminals, which makes you complicit in their next attacks. I know, you’re just trying to write a little app for the iPhone with in-app purchases, and you didn’t ask for this fight to be yours, but if you pay the trolls, giving them money and comfort to go after the next round of indie developers, you’re not just being “pragmatic,” you have actually gone over to the dark side. Sorry. Life is a bit hard sometimes, and sometimes you have to step up and fight fights that you never signed up for.

Civilized people don’t pay up. They band together, and fight, and eliminate the problem. The EFF is launching a major initiative to reform the patent system. At Stack Exchange, we’re trying to help with Ask Patents, which will hopefully block a few bad patents before they get issued.

The Application Developers Alliance (of which I am currently serving as the chairman of the board) is also getting involved with a series of Developer Patent Summits, a nationwide tour of 15 cities, which will kick off a long term program to band together to fight patent trolls. Come to the summit in your city—I’ll be at the San Francisco event on April 9th—and find out what you can do to help.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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About the author.

I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, which lets you organize anything, together, FogBugz, enlightened issue tracking software for bug tracking, and Kiln, which provides distributed version control and code reviews. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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