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Apple and Samsung share common enemy in patent trolls

Patent trolls are increasingly targeting Apple, as well as HP and Samsung, according to new stats from PatentFreedom.

PatentFreedom examined non-practicing entities (NPEs) - or companies that exist primarily to collect money from companies using the patented technology they own. The organisation found that Apple has been hit with 171 lawsuits from these NPEs since 2009, 24 of which were filed in the first half of 2013.

The number of patent troll lawsuits filed against Apple has increased over the years, from 27 in 2009 to 34 in 2010, 42 in 2011, and 44 last year.

"NPEs continue to target many large and high-profile companies quite relentlessly," PatentFreedom concluded.

Hewlett-Packard came in second place with 137 suits since 2009. HP had to contend with "only" 19 suits last year, but its count for the first half of 2013 is already at 21.

In position three is one of Apple's biggest rivals, Samsung. The Korean consumer electronics giant has been hit with 133 patent trolls suits in the past five years, peaking in 2011 with 43. So far this year, it has had to contend with 19 suits.

Google made the list in 10th place with 103 suits since 2009. Microsoft landed at 12 with 90 suits. Of the top 30 companies on PatentFreedom's list, the major players are all there, including the top four wireless carriers, phone makers like HTC and LG, and retailers like Amazon and Best Buy.

Though tech firms are fighting expansive patent battles against each other (Samsung vs. Apple or Motorola vs. Microsoft comes to mind), these firms must also battle companies that serve only to make funds from patents. Typically, individuals, groups, or even academic institutions will acquire patents, set up a company, and file lawsuits against those they believe to be violating the patents they own. Some are able to secure deals before the case makes its way to the court, but these companies are not held in high regard, hence the nickname patent "trolls."

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that reputable companies still file most patent lawsuits in the US, while NPEs filed about a fifth of patent suits between 2007 and 2010. Unsurprisingly, "software-related patents accounted for about 89 per cent of the increase in defendants over this period," the agency concluded.

The GAO identified three things contributing to the growth of patent suits: vague or overly broad patents; the potential for huge monetary gains on even the smallest idea; and the recognition by companies that patents are a more valuable asset than once assumed.

The GAO found that 21 per cent of patent cases filed between 2007 and 2011 were still making their way through the courts. The agency was unable to determine just how much patent litigation costs from its sample data of 500 cases, but pointed to a 2011 study that said a patent infringement case could cost between $650,000 (£420,000) to $5 million (£3.2 million) to litigate, without damages.

Further, "a 2012 study that looked at all district court patent decisions that proceeded through trial from 1995 to 2011 found that the median damage award was over $5 million dollars and that damage awards in NPE cases were higher than in other types of suits."