Joe Mullin in today's ars technica has an appropriately illustrated example of some of the worst misbehaviors of patent trolls. (I won't even try to copy that picture - go see it for yourselves.)
The specific case he discusses involves a shell entity that had its law firm send around "pay up or else" letters accusing IT service providers of violating patents by doing normal business things - in this case scanning a document and mailing a PDF. The troll claimed to have a patent on this process, a ludicrous claim in the first place, and then wanted to enforce the patent against people using equipment, rather than against the manufacturers whose equipment was claimed to be in violation of the patent. But wait, it gets worse.
The protagonist of Mullin's story - Steven Vicinanza- decides to fight back and wins in court - yay! Except that as I blogged about a couple weeks ago, this NPE had rigged the game. The court victory just absolved one company - it didn't touch the patents and claims. Those toxic assets have apparently been distributed to "a network of at least eight different shell companies" that Mullin documents. Each of them is now spreading demand letters, blanketing something like 2/3 of the USA. And, like bullies everywhere, these trolls are targeting the small, poor, and presumably weakest defendants.
According to Mullins (quoting research by Professor Colleen Chien of Santa Clara University) this practice of suing users rather than makers is increasingly popular, presumably because they can be bullied into paying up more easily. Shades of the Copyright Cartel going after individual song downloaders!
As I noted last month, the legal landscape is vastly slanted in favor of this kind of activity. NPEs are immune to counter-suit, they can mass-mail demand letters to collect from the weak and the scared, and the cost of fighting them to the point of invalidating their bullshit patents would be much higher than the costs of paying their extortion demands. Yes, the patents are bullshit - ars links to them and you can go read them for yourself. Vicinanza apparently spent $5000 on a prior art search that was good enough to make the trolls run and hide, which leads me back to my tired refrain of "can we please get the USPTO to stop issuing crap patents."
You can read Mullin's story to follow the shenanigans that are still going on. It's pretty clear that the people involved are doing everything they legally can to hide their tracks, erase past identities that have gotten tainted, and make as many fast bucks as possible. It's bad behavior and bad news all the way through, so if you ever wondered why there's bad blood around patent trolls now you know. Certainly not all NPEs behave this way, and there remain good and valid reasons to use NPEs but that's going to get buried under the heaps of rubbish kicked up by abusers like this.
(Thanks to an anonymous Copyfight reader for the initial tip.)