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PublishedMay 17, 2024

Another startup bites the dust, courtesy of patent trolls

A handful of interest groups like to claim that patent trolls are a myth—that they’re a straw man used to shape IP policy in ways that are harmful to patent holders. Mycroft AI is one of many startups for whom the threat of patent trolls was all too real.

The story of Mycroft AI, the creator of a virtual assistant that responds to spoken requests, follows a common story line. The founders had an idea and began obtaining funding to bring their idea to life. After successfully seeking out funding and participating in startup accelerators, the trouble began. In 2020, a Texas law firm accused Mycroft of infringing on two patents that belonged to the patent troll Voice Tech Corporation. According to the email, Voice Tech’s patents covered a system for handling “voice commands from a mobile device to remotely access and control a computer”—supposedly, the very technology that Mycroft’s products were built upon.

A month after Mycroft was sued, its CEO, Joshua Montgomery vowed that the startup would fight back, but it was an uphill battle from the start. In addition to the various challenges that all startups face when trying to grow and compete, Voice Tech’s lawsuit added expensive legal fees. Mycroft was ultimately forced to fire all but four employees and their CEO posted on Kickstarter, informing investors that the company would be unable to fulfill rewards. In the post, Montgomery commented, “The single most expensive item that I could not predict was our ongoing litigation against the non-practicing patent entity that has never stopped trying to destroy us. If we had that million dollars we would be in a very different state right now.”

Earlier this month, the Federal Circuit affirmed a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) decision that found multiple Voice Tech patent claims were invalid. While this victory was ultimately too late for Mycroft, it demonstrates the value of maintaining accessible PTAB review. It also shows exactly why USPTO rules that block PTAB reviews in instances where there is parallel litigation are flawed. 

Mycroft is just one of too many American startups that have been destroyed by patent trolls. It is discouraging that, in this instance, the PTAB’s invalidation ruling wasn’t able to protect Mycroft soon enough. But at least the PTAB’s decision means that Voice Tech won’t be able to use those same patents to kill any more startups. 

So the next time you read that the patent troll narrative is overblown, or that patent trolls are a myth? Remember Mycroft AI and other promising innovators just like them. 

Josh Landau

Patent Counsel, CCIA

Joshua Landau is the Patent Counsel at the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), where he represents and advises the association regarding patent issues.  Mr. Landau joined CCIA from WilmerHale in 2017, where he represented clients in patent litigation, counseling, and prosecution, including trials in both district courts and before the PTAB.

Prior to his time at WilmerHale, Mr. Landau was a Legal Fellow on Senator Al Franken’s Judiciary staff, focusing on privacy and technology issues.  Mr. Landau received his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and his B.S.E.E. from the University of Michigan.  Before law school, he spent several years as an automotive engineer, during which time he co-invented technology leading to U.S. Patent No. 6,934,140.

Follow @PatentJosh on Twitter.

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