By Life360 CEO Chris Hulls
I thought I was finished standing up to bullies when I left junior high. Being the quiet guy and a late bloomer made me an easy target growing up, but I eventually fought back and after that no one ever bothered me again… that is, until now.
As a tech founder, I’ve met a new kind of bully — patent trolls. The greedy, unethical leeches who abuse the legal system and prey on the success of others by extorting “licensing fees” for irrelevant or useless technology.
Like bullies, most people see trolls as a serious problem, but they rarely fight back, because paying them off in a shake down is almost always cheaper than going to trial.
Last May, my company Life360, a family networking app, was attacked by a troll the same week we raised $50 million in financing.
In this case, we were being sued by Advanced Ground Information Systems Inc. for patent infringement — and although they may not fit the exact definition of a patent troll, their behavior was eerily similar. When I looked into the company, things did not add up. They had no employees on LinkedIn, and a waterfront mansion in Florida as the corporate headquarters.
Under their interpretation of the patents, any company that showed a location marker on a map or connects a group of people using location-sharing capabilities on smartphones could be infringing.
It felt like I was getting mugged on payday, and although we had settled with trolls before, I decided that this was the last straw. I realized that bullying begets more bullying, and not standing up to patent trolls just paints a target with dollar signs on your back.
“Dear Piece of Sh*t,
We are currently in the process of retaining counsel and investigating this matter. As a result, we will not be able to meet your Friday deadline. After reviewing this matter with our counsel, we will provide a prompt response.
I will pray tonight that karma is real, and that you are its worthy recipient,
While my wording may have been extreme, the message got through. Needless to say, we quickly found ourselves in federal court. They asked to settle, and I told them my offer was $0 and they would need to license their entire patent portfolio to all other startups, or we would go on the offensive and invalidate their entire intellectual property portfolio.
They thought I was bluffing. They were wrong. Last week, a jury returned a verdict of non-infringement on all of the claims against us. And with that, the troll is dead.
There were three non-traditional things I did during our troll fight that any company facing a troll can and should do.
I can’t promise you’ll win, but you will definitely send a message that you are not interested in settling and in fact, will make it as painful as possible for the troll, sending a clear message that you are not a willing target for future litigation as well.
There is nothing that trolls or predatory law firms hate more than being publicly called out for what they are. They expect that you’ll listen to your lawyers, stay quiet and pay them to go away. In our case, we refused to let AGIS Inc. and its lawyers Mark Hannemann and Thomas Makin of Kenyon and Kenyon LLP, hide in the background. Throughout our battle, we frequently publicized their role in this case with various influencers and media and it really got to them.
Share Information And Resources
As part of our effort to help arm any other companies facing AGIS, we essentially open-sourced all of the prior art collected with the tech community and even announced free legal support for other startups with less than $25 million in funding facing AGIS. We did this to draw attention to the case and the meritless claims being brought against us, and also send a strong signal that if you sue us, we will not only stick up for ourselves, but make it harder for you to sue others.
Go With Your Gut And Commit To It
This is about right and wrong, and that will help you sleep better at night. Always remember you are fighting the good fight and while that may sound cheesy, but it’s really important when things get hard.
There were some advisors who encouraged me to settle, so I wouldn’t have this costly distraction, but that is a very short term view. You are far less likely to become a target if you have a prior record of making it very difficult for the troll versus paying up each time.
While this win was not without cost, we have strong evidence that our hardline approach is working. We’ve received two other demand letters since the AGIS suit was filed, and when they saw the extreme defense we mounted against AGIS, they went away.
So, to my fellow founders, VCs, and other members of the tech community, I beg of you, please don’t settle. Join others like Lee Cheng of NewEgg andKevin O’Connor of Findthebest, and say no. We can make this problem go away in an instant by collectively standing up to bullies that plague us.