Intellectual Property Risks

Taking Down Trolls

With patent infringement litigation still going strong, companies seek methods of protection.
By: | May 6, 2015 • 8 min read

Patent trolls are a thorn in the side of many companies.

Even when infringement claims are weak, many firms opt to settle just to avoid having to spend millions defending them in court, experts said.

To be sure, the terms “patent troll” or “non-practicing entity” (NPE) are often used to paint with too broad of a brush, as some NPEs have legitimate reasons to sue for patent infringement, said Rudy Telscher, a partner at Harness Dickey & Pierce law firm in St. Louis.

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Many individuals, smaller companies and universities that innovate don’t have an interest or resources to bring products to the market, Telscher said. Alternatively, they may have tried to make a go out of commercializing their patent, but found the competition too stiff. These entities determined that they would be better off having other companies pay them a royalty to use their invention or patented technology in their own products, and if others refuse to pay but still use their patent, then the NPEs rightfully sue.

An example of true patent troll abuse stems from when firms bought broadly worded patents that were issued by the U.S. Patent Office during the dot.com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Those patents were analyzed by the government under less strict standards than those used today, Telscher said.

Patent trolls typically sue 20 or more companies to lower their own filing costs, then settle with individual defendants.

Rudy Telscher, partner, Harness Dickey & Pierce

Rudy Telscher, partner, Harness Dickey & Pierce

“Patent troll companies invest significant time and money to pan for gold, by trying to find these old, broadly worded patents and then assert them against industries to get royalties not reasonably owed by using the high cost of patent litigation as a coercive weapon,” he said.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s 2014 Octane decision made it easier for defendants to get their court fees paid by trolls if they choose to defend patent cases, Telscher said.

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice decision has been used by district courts to strike down software and other patents having claims drawn to “abstract ideas,” and its 2014 Nautilus decision has been used to strike down patent claims that are vague and indefinite regarding claim scope coverage.

“While the Supreme Court cases of the last year have deterred some patent trolls from asserting the weakest of patent cases, many entities are still filing such cases,” Telscher said.

“In no case do we give NPEs any money, since we believe paying NPEs only ‘feeds the beast,’ ” — Shawn Ambwani, chief operating officer, Unified Patents

The 2011 Leahy–Smith American Invents Act (AIA), which determined how many defendants could be sued in a single case, has also had some impact on patent infringement litigation — but not as much as defendants in such cases would have liked, said Brian Howard, a legal data scientist at Lex Machina, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm that tracks district court litigation.

Insignificant Decrease in Claims

Since the new rules generally caused plaintiffs to sue defendants in separate cases rather than in a single combined case, Lex Machina counted the combinations of defendants and cases after the AIA became effective (a lawsuit by one plaintiff against three defendants is now counted as three cases for the purposes of tracking).

The company found that the new rules did not drastically reduce patent case filings. The statistics from late 2011 to mid-2013 followed a trajectory consistent with that of 2009 to early 2011. Overall, 2014 saw a steady increase in case filings through April, followed by sharp drop in May and a flat remainder of the year, leaving total filings down 21 percent from 2013.

That was “not the dramatic reduction that many were expecting,” Howard said.

Intellectual Property Insurance Services Corp., based in Louisville, Ken., offers a patent troll defense policy, said President Bob Fletcher.

If a policyholder is sued by a patent troll, the insured can solicit counsel of their choice to determine whether they would have a 51 percent chance of winning “by a preponderance of evidence,” in which case the policy would then pay for the defense. The policy covers “non-core activities” because that is the focus of many of the “bad” broadly worded patent lawsuits.

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“Let’s say a firm has an Internet connection, a computer and they email something — a patent troll would sue for infringement,” he said. “For that kind of case we would not pay a settlement but would fight it to the end, because those patents never should have been granted and we would likely win. We want to teach trolls that when a client has insurance they will not settle, which will destroy the trolls’ livelihoods.”

London-based CFC Underwriting offers a variety of insurance products based on infringements of any type of intellectual property, including patents, said Erik Alsegard, intellectual property practice leader. The policies cover lawsuits regardless of whether it is a non-practicing entity or a competitive company that is suing the insured.

Before insuring, CFC reviews how companies operate, their patent risks, whether they work with a patent attorney and, where suitable, whether they run “freedom to operate” searches to mitigate the risk of patent infringement and intellectual property claims, Alsegard said.

“However, risk management and IP searches can’t 100 percent prevent claims, so that’s why insurance is really important,” he said. “The lawmakers and the courts are trying to change the behavior of patent trolls, but it is unlikely to entirely remove this risk to operating companies as the more sophisticated entities will adapt.”

Often companies will ask their suppliers to indemnify them on patent infringement lawsuits based on the product they supply, but the ability to transfer such indemnity to a supplier will depend on the strength of each party in the negotiation.

Erik Alsegard, intellectual property practice leader, CFC Underwriting

Erik Alsegard, intellectual property practice leader, CFC Underwriting

“Smaller companies are less likely to be able to negotiate away risk through contracts,” Alsegard said. “On the other hand, if a company does have to indemnify its customers, then this contractual indemnity can be insured so in a sense the insurance works as a business enabler.”

Mary Castiglia, a senior vice president at Hub International Ltd. in San Francisco, said that in the past she had been unsuccessful getting her clients to consider coverage because it had been a “fairly cumbersome underwriting process.” But now there are more options in the marketplace and firms have eased both the underwriting and claims processes. Castiglia typically works with RPX Insurance Services in San Francisco, which offers a holistic insurance and claims-settling service solution.

“We’re starting to see more interest in the marketplace to offer this type of insurance because more people are getting hit with letters from trolls,” she said.

Unified Patents in Los Altos, Calif., protects technology companies from NPE assertions using various tools, challenging patents they consider invalid using the AIA’s new “inter partes review” process, said Shawn Ambwani, chief operating officer. Since starting the challenges in 2012, United has invalidated two patents and has settled two others in which the NPEs agreed to not sue Unified’s members.

“In no case do we give NPEs any money, since we believe paying NPEs only ‘feeds the beast,’ ” Ambwani said.

Problems for Startups

Lori Johnson, a shareholder and intellectual property lawyer in the Atlanta office of law firm Chamberlain Hrdlicka, works with several large companies that budget for patent infringement claims by trolls and other entities rather than buy insurance.

However, startups should consider buying insurance, because many troll suits target the software within their websites.

“The asserted patents may have little to do with the underlying business the startup is engaged in,” Johnson said.

“It’s very easy to name call and put everyone in the same category,” he said. “But we say, hold on a second! Let’s not throw away 225 years of patenting innovations that have built value in the economy.” — Phil Hartstein, president and chief executive officer, Finjan Holdings Inc.

Startups should also consider requesting indemnification from their web development company, she said. If the development company is using off-the-shelf software, they may feel comfortable providing indemnity, but if they’re using cutting-edge software, “it’s a red flag if they do not even want to talk indemnification.”

“Most firms don’t want to indemnify if they can help it, but if they’re not even willing to talk about it, that would make me nervous,” Johnson said. “I would recommend shopping for another web developer that might be more willing to indemnify or more capable of handling a suit.”

One NPE that is fighting against the patent troll stigma is Finjan Holdings Inc. in East Palo Alto, Calif., said Phil Hartstein, president and chief executive officer. Finjan was formed in 1997 first as a software company and then as a hardware company, raising $65 million in capital over a number of rounds between 1998 and 2006 to develop content inspection technologies.

In 2005, the company struck its first licensing deal with Microsoft, without having to litigate, Hartstein said. Finjan ultimately divested the technology company. Today, it’s a publicly traded entity that seeks first to make licensing deals with companies using its patents before litigating. Major funds and companies have invested in Finjan, including Cisco Systems Inc.

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“It’s very easy to name call and put everyone in the same category,” he said. “But we say, hold on a second! Let’s not throw away 225 years of patenting innovations that have built value in the economy. Let’s focus instead on giving those that exhibit positive, ethical behaviors the freedom to continue down this road.”

Finjan has posted four core values and seven best practices based on such behaviors on its website, and is working with the American Intellectual Property Law Association and the Licensing Executives Society to build certification programs for licensing entities. The American National Standards Institute has agreed to be the governing body for the “LES Standards Pilot Program.”

“If there is an opportunity for us to participate in establishing credibility in the licensing industry by disseminating best practices, that enables us to move out of the shadows of litigation arbitrage and back into the credible exchange of ideas for invested capital,” Hartstein said.

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Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Insurtech

Kiss Your Annual Renewal Goodbye; On-Demand Insurance Challenges the Traditional Policy

Gig workers' unique insurance needs drive delivery of on-demand coverage.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 6 min read

The gig economy is growing. Nearly six million Americans, or 3.8 percent of the U.S. workforce, now have “contingent” work arrangements, with a further 10.6 million in categories such as independent contractors, on-call workers or temporary help agency staff and for-contract firms, often with well-known names such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

The number of Americans owning a drone is also increasing — one recent survey suggested as much as one in 12 of the population — sparking vigorous debate on how regulation should apply to where and when the devices operate.

Add to this other 21st century societal changes, such as consumers’ appetite for other electronic gadgets and the advent of autonomous vehicles. It’s clear that the cover offered by the annually renewable traditional insurance policy is often not fit for purpose. Helped by the sophistication of insurance technology, the response has been an expanding range of ‘on-demand’ covers.

The term ‘on-demand’ is open to various interpretations. For Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO of pioneering on-demand insurance platform Trōv, it’s about “giving people agency over the items they own and enabling them to turn on insurance cover whenever they want for whatever they want — often for just a single item.”

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“On-demand represents a whole new behavior and attitude towards insurance, which for years has very much been a case of ‘get it and forget it,’ ” said Walchek.

Trōv’s mobile app enables users to insure just a single item, such as a laptop, whenever they wish and to also select the period of cover required. When ready to buy insurance, they then snap a picture of the sales receipt or product code of the item they want covered.

Welcoming Trōv: A New On-Demand Arrival

While Walchek, who set up Trōv in 2012, stressed it’s a technology company and not an insurance company, it has attracted industry giants such as AXA and Munich Re as partners. Trōv began the U.S. roll-out of its on-demand personal property products this summer by launching in Arizona, having already established itself in Australia and the United Kingdom.

“Australia and the UK were great testing grounds, thanks to their single regulatory authorities,” said Walchek. “Trōv is already approved in 45 states, and we expect to complete the process in all by November.

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group.” – Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group,” he added.

“But a mass of tectonic societal shifts is also impacting older generations — on-demand cover fits the new ways in which they work, particularly the ‘untethered’ who aren’t always in the same workplace or using the same device. So we see on-demand going into societal lifestyle changes.”

Wooing Baby Boomers

In addition to its backing for Trōv, across the Atlantic, AXA has partnered with Insurtech start-up By Miles, launching a pay-as-you-go car insurance policy in the UK. The product is promoted as low-cost car insurance for drivers who travel no more than 140 miles per week, or 7,000 miles annually.

“Due to the growing need for these products, companies such as Marmalade — cover for learner drivers — and Cuvva — cover for part-time drivers — have also increased in popularity, and we expect to see more enter the market in the near future,” said AXA UK’s head of telematics, Katy Simpson.

Simpson confirmed that the new products’ initial appeal is to younger motorists, who are more regular users of new technology, while older drivers are warier about sharing too much personal information. However, she expects this to change as on-demand products become more prevalent.

“Looking at mileage-based insurance, such as By Miles specifically, it’s actually older generations who are most likely to save money, as the use of their vehicles tends to decline. Our job is therefore to not only create more customer-centric products but also highlight their benefits to everyone.”

Another Insurtech ready to partner with long-established names is New York-based Slice Labs, which in the UK is working with Legal & General to enter the homeshare insurance market, recently announcing that XL Catlin will use its insurance cloud services platform to create the world’s first on-demand cyber insurance solution.

“For our cyber product, we were looking for a partner on the fintech side, which dovetailed perfectly with what Slice was trying to do,” said John Coletti, head of XL Catlin’s cyber insurance team.

“The premise of selling cyber insurance to small businesses needs a platform such as that provided by Slice — we can get to customers in a discrete, seamless manner, and the partnership offers potential to open up other products.”

Slice Labs’ CEO Tim Attia added: “You can roll up on-demand cover in many different areas, ranging from contract workers to vacation rentals.

“The next leap forward will be provided by the new economy, which will create a range of new risks for on-demand insurance to respond to. McKinsey forecasts that by 2025, ecosystems will account for 30 percent of global premium revenue.

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“When you’re a start-up, you can innovate and question long-held assumptions, but you don’t have the scale that an insurer can provide,” said Attia. “Our platform works well in getting new products out to the market and is scalable.”

Slice Labs is now reviewing the emerging markets, which aren’t hampered by “old, outdated infrastructures,” and plans to test the water via a hackathon in southeast Asia.

Collaboration Vs Competition

Insurtech-insurer collaborations suggest that the industry noted the banking sector’s experience, which names the tech disruptors before deciding partnerships, made greater sense commercially.

“It’s an interesting correlation,” said Slice’s managing director for marketing, Emily Kosick.

“I believe the trend worth calling out is that the window for insurers to innovate is much shorter, thanks to the banking sector’s efforts to offer omni-channel banking, incorporating mobile devices and, more recently, intelligent assistants like Alexa for personal banking.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.”

As with fintechs in banking, Insurtechs initially focused on the retail segment, with 75 percent of business in personal lines and the remainder in the commercial segment.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.” — Emily Kosick, managing director, marketing, Slice

Those proportions may be set to change, with innovations such as digital commercial insurance brokerage Embroker’s recent launch of the first digital D&O liability insurance policy, designed for venture capital-backed tech start-ups and reinsured by Munich Re.

Embroker said coverage that formerly took weeks to obtain is now available instantly.

“We focus on three main issues in developing new digital business — what is the customer’s pain point, what is the expense ratio and does it lend itself to algorithmic underwriting?” said CEO Matt Miller. “Workers’ compensation is another obvious class of insurance that can benefit from this approach.”

Jason Griswold, co-founder and chief operating officer of Insurtech REIN, highlighted further opportunities: “I’d add a third category to personal and business lines and that’s business-to-business-to-consumer. It’s there we see the biggest opportunities for partnering with major ecosystems generating large numbers of insureds and also big volumes of data.”

For now, insurers are accommodating Insurtech disruption. Will that change?

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“Insurtechs have focused on products that regulators can understand easily and for which there is clear existing legislation, with consumer protection and insurer solvency the two issues of paramount importance,” noted Shawn Hanson, litigation partner at law firm Akin Gump.

“In time, we could see the disruptors partner with reinsurers rather than primary carriers. Another possibility is the likes of Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook and Apple, with their massive balance sheets, deciding to link up with a reinsurer,” he said.

“You can imagine one of them finding a good Insurtech and buying it, much as Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods gave it entry into the retail sector.” &

Graham Buck is a UK-based writer and has contributed to Risk & Insurance® since 1998. He can be reached at riskletters.com.