Trolling for Dollars

, The Recorder

Peter Detkin's spin sounds surprisingly like something out of the Brothers Grimm.

In the sleepy village of Santa Clara, there lived a very wealthy but very frightened giant named Intel. Intel was plagued by a fearsome band of evil trolls -- patent trolls, to be exact -- who wanted a glittering pot of gold in exchange for doing absolutely nothing. And they were very powerful because they said they owned the patent on some of the magic Intel used to become rich.

The true story behind the fairy tale, at least Detkin's version of it, unfolds like a case study on a patent system run amok. The assistant general counsel at semiconductor titan Intel Corp., Detkin spends much of his time these days fighting off claims of patent infringement by companies that have never made a semiconductor device. In 1999 alone, the claims topped $15 billion, Detkin said, and he hurls the epithet "patent trolls" at the companies that want Intel to pay up. He even keeps a couple of troll dolls on his desk in the gray warren of buildings at Intel's Santa Clara headquarters just as a reminder of his company's legal enemies.

"We were sued for libel for the use of the term 'patent extortionists' so I came up with 'patent trolls,'" Detkin said. "A patent troll is somebody who tries to make a lot of money off a patent that they are not practicing and have no intention of practicing and in most cases never practiced."

The companies Detkin calls trolls relate a much different version of the fairy tale. In their story, Intel is a crafty colossus who stomped on their rights and brazenly stole the all-important magic that helped spin the semiconductor into gold. They're just getting a fair share for themselves and their clients and contend this is why the patent system is in place: to protect the small from manipulative mammoths like Intel.

And more and more, they are the ones who get to write the happy ending for the story.

In the last decade, patent enforcement has grown into a multibillion shadow industry that is transforming America's patent system from a security fence protecting inventors from exploitation into a money-minting machine for a few patent holders.

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