Patent trolls were behind more than half of the US's IPR lawsuits last year, the first time they have represented the majority of such actions, and that reflected the increasing aggression of companies in chasing licensing fees as other revenue streams come under pressure.
However, it is a risky business for companies which rely entirely on patents, without product business to back that up. The ups and downs of the IPR firms have been epitomized in the saga of Canada-based WiLan, once a broadband wireless equipment maker, which converted to a licensing-only model in 2006.
WiLan has a portfolio of about 3,000 patents in wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, 2G, LTE as well as other broadband technologies. Its stock crashed to just C$27 ($26.23) in July when a court decided against it, in a key case against Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, HTC and Sony. But now it has come to a settlement with two of those opponents, with separate pacts with Alcatel-Lucent and HTC.
These victories may well affect the outcome of other pending trials and negotiations, including those with Ericsson and Sony – WiLan has filed for a retrial of that 3GPP-related case - and with other firms such as BlackBerry, Apple and Hewlett-Packard.
Several of these are approaching resolution, and a rush of licensing deals could settle investor nerves about the high costs of litigation at WiLan. Next month an important trial, focused on claims against a group of vendors over CDMA-Wi-Fi patents, will take place.