Bridge Span 15-8: The Modern Billy Goat’s Gruff

In the popular Norwegian fairy tale, Billy Goat’s Gruff, three goats must use a bridge to get across a river to get to grass as no grass is left on their side of the river. But it turns out that the bridge is blocked by a nasty troll who eats those who try to cross. The troll threatens to eat each brother in turn, but being greedy for a bigger feast he waits until the biggest brother crosses. But then meets his match. The goat throws the troll off the bridge, into the stream, and the bridge is safe thereafter, allowing all of the goats to regularly get to the rich grass fields.

In a modern, darker twist on the tale the trolls, patent trolls, are even greedier, eating all they can lay their claws on. Not even small business is immune, and in fact, they seem to be the easiest targets.

Apparently hungry for a fantastic hamburger business the trolls have torn into Whataburger. As reported (, “’We’re a burger company. We don’t own any patents. We make hamburgers,’ says Whataburger general counsel Michael Gibbs. But in the last two years, he says, he’s been forced to deal with patent threats. Gibbs says Whataburger has faced legal threats for using Ethernet networking equipment and for putting calorie information on its Web site. And he says Whataburger scuttled plans to offer Wi-Fi access to its customers after learning that a troll had started suing companies that offered Wi-Fi services.’”

Not full after denying customers Wi-Fi and nutritional information at Whataburger, the trolls went after Caribou Coffee, Cosi and Panera Bread. Again attacking the users of legitimately purchased and installed technology, rather than directing their efforts at the manufacturer. Why this tactic? Fast cash.

In this scheme patent trolls and their trial lawyer enforcers threaten lawsuits against those who are using supposedly patent infringing technology. Receiving such a threat, most businesses find it better to settle for the tens of thousands of dollars demanded rather than spend multiples of that fighting the bogus lawsuit. Why not sue every user of Wi-Fi if use is really the infringement? There is no money in that game for the trial lawyers and trolls. “Innovatio has made a strategic and business judgment at this stage that it doesn’t intend to pursue [lawsuits on the basis of] residential use of Wi-Fi,” McAndrews said during a phone conversation last week. (

Next up, the most aggressive troll of 2015, e Dekka, went after a family owned and operated hunting supply store in Stuttgart, Arkansas, Mack’s Prairie Wings. Relying on a patent filed before online shopping had even come into being, e Dekka asserted a broad patent claiming to cover online shopping carts. In another action against a grocery store, digital couponing was targeted for the shakedown even though the patent was issued years after the routine use of digital coupons and decades after the use of retail coupons in general.

The modern Billy Goat’s Gruff is scarier than the old tale. The trolls are greedier, and have learned a mafia-like protection racket shakedown. To cross the bridge to profitability small businesses must find a way to dodge the troll, either paying a tribute, spending huge sums of money to win on principle or just simply walking away from trying to prosper. What this story needs is a hero – a Congress willing to fix this glaring problem in the patent system.

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