Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Whack That Mole!

Over at Hacker News comes another story of patent trolls at PersonalWeb trying to use the legal system to extort money out of a company that actually produces something of value - Rackspace.

Rackspace describes the hilariously inept lawsuit:
To explain, this suit claims that Rackspace infringes the PersonalWeb patents “by its manufacture, use, sale, importation, and/or offer for sale of the following products and services within the PersonalWeb Patent Field: Rackspace Cloud Servers and GitHub Code Hosting Service.” It’s apparent that the people filing the suit don’t understand the technology or the products enough to realize that Rackspace Cloud Servers and GitHub are completely different products from different companies. By now, it’s widely known that GitHub is hosted at Rackspace, but beyond that, there is no other connection between the two.
In other words, they named both Rackspace and a client of Rackspace as both being things sold by Rackspace.

But don't let this kind of pathetic 'failure-to-google-even-basic-details-about-the-tech-industry' ineptitude fool you - these guys are technology pioneers, and its crucial to protect their right to innovate for ... well, nobody knows quite what fig leaf they're even claiming.

Rackspace in its post describes legislation they're supporting to try to combat this problem.
The next legislative effort will likely center around what is known as the SHIELD Act, which has been introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). This bill would require plaintiffs to pay defendants’ legal costs if the suit is unsuccessful. Under current law, the patent trolls don’t have any meaningful risk in bringing litigation. The defendants, on the other hand, are subjected to enormous legal expenses and discovery costs. The SHIELD Act is designed to level the playing field and take away the trolls’ unfair advantage. We encourage all of our customers, partners, open source collaborators and friends to support Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz in their effort to discourage these abusive patent troll lawsuits.
I applaud this effort, but it seems to miss the forest for the trees.

Tree #1 - patent trolls keep filing lots of frivolous lawsuits, extorting money out of technology company. This needs some sort of specific remedy, such as making unsuccessful plaintiffs pay the defense's legal costs.

Tree #2 - Unscrupulous junk science trial lawyers keep suing doctors for enormous amounts of money over any perceived problem, driving up the cost of malpractice insurance and healthcare. This needs some sort of specific remedy, like capping damages for pain and suffering in malpractice lawsuits.

Tree #3 - Thugs desiring to silence public debate file lots of lawsuits to bankrupt opponents. This requires some sort of specific remedy, such as an Anti-SLAPP statute to help stop egregious discover processes and make unsuccessful plaintiffs pay the defense's legal costs.

What is the forest? The fact that America refuses to implement an across-the-board loser pays system of civil proceedings.

The great reasons why unsuccessful patent trolls should pay the other side's legal costs apply to everybody - lame unfair dismissal claims, Americans with Disabilities Act gold-digging lawsuits for trivial breaches of building codes, frivolous claims that you slipped over on somebody's sidewalk, etc. etc. etc. You can get rid of the whole lot of them, all at once, by just making the losing party pay the legal fees.

The lawyers will howl that this will discourage people from filing lawsuits.

Exactly. There are far, far too many lawsuits in America. A big part of the reason for this is that filing a lawsuit when your own counsel is operating on contingency (as lots of plaintiffs have) gives you a call option - your payoffs are zero or positive. And people are surprised when lots of people load up on call options?

If you simply made plaintiffs bear some of the costs, in expectation, that they impose on society through their lawsuits, you wouldn't have to screw around with a zillion other makeshift fixes for the enormous numbers of problems that this underlying legal deficiency creates.

Is this going to happen any time soon?

Sadly, no.

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