Trolls beware.

By Jeff John Roberts
September 21, 2017

Internet security company Cloudflare is charging ahead with an unusual campaign to demolish Blackbird, a patent firm run by a group of lawyers who Cloudflare accuses of engaging in unethical practices.

On Thursday, Cloudflare announced it has paid out the first $15,000 to people who discovered documents that could help invalidate Blackbird’s patents. The money is part of a $100,000 war chest the company announced this spring, and is using in its quest to bring down Blackbird.

Cloudflare has labeled Blackbird a new breed of “patent troll”—a derogatory term for companies that don’t produce anything, but instead amass patents in order to extract money from companies that do. While patent trolling is hardly new, Cloudflare claims Blackbird is especially infamous because it is run by lawyers and may be engaging in illegal fee-splitting arrangements with patent owners.

Blackbird did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment, but it has in the past claimed its business model is a cost efficient way for small inventors to assert their rights.

Cloudflare rejects this view, and instead likens Blackbird to a drive-by shakedown scheme. In its latest blog post, the Internet company pointed to a patent from 1998 for GPS technology that Blackbird used to sue six companies—but then quickly dismissed the lawsuits, consistent with “a pattern where Blackbird was only looking for small settlements from defendants who sought to avoid the costs and delays of litigation.”

The 1998 patent in question, titled G​P​S​-in​t​e​r​n​e​t​ ​L​i​n​k​a​g​e, is likely to raise eyebrows in the tech world since its language (an “integrated system comprising the Global Positioning System and the Internet wherein the integrated system can identify the precise geographic location of both sender and receiver communicating computer terminals”) appears to cover nearly anything related to GPS, and is supported by a simple graphic:

The GPS patent is one of two for which Cloudflare paid a series of $500 bounties to the public in return for so-called prior art, which can be used to challenge the validity of a patent. In the case of the GPS patent, the prior art consists of research papers and other patents from 1998 and earlier that Cloudflare says will show the invention is not valid. (Under the law, the government is only supposed to issue patents for inventions that are both new and not obvious.)

Cloudflare says it file a challenge to the GPS patent before the Patent Office under a procedure that lets third parties demand a re-examination of a patent they believe should not have been issued in the first place.

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Meanwhile, the company also paid for prior art related to another patent that Blackbird is asserting in court against Cloudflare itself. That patent, which dates from 1998, describes a way to provide an “internet third party data channel.

In the blog post, Cloudflare adds that it is “just warming up” and intends to pursue challenges against at least 10 other Blackbird-controlled patents. If the challenges are successful, this would likely put a major crimp in Blackbird’s operations or possibly force it out of business altogether.

Finally, Cloudflare is expanding a separate campaign that asks legal disciplinary bodies to punish Blackbird lawyers for violating the profession’s fee-splitting arrangements. Cloudflare has already lodged complaints with the state bars of Massachusetts and Illinois, which have yet to issue a ruling, and on Thursday said it has filed an additional objection with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Office of Enrollment and Discipline.

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