Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many millions of workers and students used mobile technology to get their jobs done from afar. A recent survey conducted by Workhuman, for example, showed that – even pre-coronavirus – about a third of people in the U.S. worked remotely at least some of the time.
Mobile platforms have been key; they surpassed desktops in 2018 as the primary way for Americans to access the internet. Pew Research Center reports that 81% of Americans now own a smartphone and about half have a tablet.
Almost overnight, the coronavirus crisis has transformed this growing trend into a stark necessity for all Americans. With businesses and schools nationwide shutting their doors to prevent the spread of the virus, mobile work and online education are quickly becoming the only way to work and learn. As coronavirus continues to spread, it is impossible to imagine how our economy or social fabric would hold together without smartphones and other mobile devices.
But our ability to work and learn remotely is under attack right now in a federal agency called the International Trade Commission (ITC). The attacker, an obscure Irish company called Neodron, has filed two complaints asking the ITC for “exclusion orders” that would completely ban Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, and several other major tech companies from offering smartphones, tablets, and touchscreen computers to U.S. consumers.
Neodron is what is commonly referred to as a patent troll. These companies exist solely to exploit patents they have acquired – not by using the patents, but by launching extreme legal attacks on legitimate, innovative companies for patent infringement and asking for import bans of millions of products, regardless of the broader damage this would inflict. They are not protecting innovation; they are just hoping for massive settlement payouts.
Neodron has never invented anything. It does not engage in any kind of tech enterprise or offer any services to consumers. Neodron is nothing but a shell company operating out of a couple of small rental offices, formed in 2018 to pursue rent-seeking schemes. Neodron owns a handful of patents pertaining to touchscreen technology — just a few patents among the potentially hundreds of thousands of patents that go into mobile devices. They are using these patents to hold hostage every significant non-Chinese mobile device brand Americans rely on.
Patent trolls like Neodron love the ITC because it can move faster than the courts. But the only remedy it has is an exclusion order — again, a total ban on imports — which is utterly cataclysmic in these cases. Neodron’s request for the ITC to issue exclusion orders is especially egregious because the ITC is not a patent court — its core mission is to protect U.S. industry and U.S. consumers from unfair foreign trade practices. Yet the businesses being attacked here are the ones that actually do invent, design, manufacture, and contribute something to the US economy. Neodron’s actions perversely corrupt the ITC’s purpose.
The self-serving actions of Neodron and other patent trolls harm U.S. consumers and employers whenever they occur. But now, with the world facing a public health crisis that can be at least ameliorated by ensuring unfettered access to mobile devices and connectivity, Neodron’s conduct is beyond the pale.
Everyone is hopeful that the ITC will jettison Neodron’s cases. But there is no guarantee. While the cases are pending, we all need to let policymakers know that they cannot stand idly by and let the legal tactics of this self-serving company choke off access to the devices that hundreds of millions of Americans depend on every day as the coronavirus spreads. It is unacceptable for a patent troll to impede the innovation, affordability, and supply of devices that are keeping America running during this crisis and that will be even more essential in the months ahead.
Palmer Schoening is Chairman of the Family Business Coalition in Washington, D.C.