Trolling the patent trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls,” the popular wisdom goes. But with a new project, Cloudflare is taking things a little farther — the company is trying to starve its trolls out by taking away their revenue.

Patent lawsuits against tech companies are fairly common, and most companies will simply settle with their opponents rather than fund an expensive, lengthy legal defense. Because companies are quick to settle, patent lawsuits have become a lucrative way for litigants to make money. Trolls can buy technology patents for as little as a dollar, then use the patents to extract settlements from well-funded companies.

But when a firm called Blackbird Technologies sued Cloudflare (and Fastly, a cloud platform) for patent infringement last month over a 1998 patent that involves proxy system error messages, Cloudflare decided to fight back. The content delivery network is launching Project Jengo, a bounty program that aims to invalidate all of the 70-plus patents Blackbird owns.

Project Jengo is offering a $50,000 bounty for research into “prior art,” or uses of the technology covered in the patents that show the technology was widely used before the patent was filed. Evidence of prior art can be used to undermine a patent infringement claim. $20,000 of the fund will go towards invalidating the patent at issue in the Cloudflare and Fastly lawsuits, while the other $30,000 will go towards invalidating Blackbird’s other patents.

“By filing 107 lawsuits against companies since September 2014, Blackbird has demonstrated that it is going to use its patents to sue productive companies,” Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince wrote in a blog post. “And patent trolls often target newer and more innovative companies, so it is important to investigate and research to discover whether prior art existed on the Blackbird patents and to keep them from filing additional cases against us or against other companies.”

The research generated in the Project Jengo lawsuit could help Cloudflare triumph in its legal battle (and unlike other companies that have faced patent suits, Cloudflare isn’t settling).

“In the face of nuisance, companies settle. We do not intend to settle at any point,” Cloudflare general counsel Doug Kramer told TechCrunch. “By settling, we’re feeding a larger problem. Organizations need to stand up.”

In addition to launching Project Jengo and fighting the lawsuit, Cloudflare is going after the leadership of Blackbird. The firm was created by attorneys and doesn’t make any of its own technology; instead, it acquires patents and then files lawsuits over them. Cloudflare argues that this is unethical, and is filing complaints against the Blackbird attorneys.

TechCrunch reached out to Blackbird for comment and will update if the firm responds. Update: “Blackbird Technologies has reviewed Cloudflare’s allegations against us. These allegations are completely without merit and we will vigorously defend ourselves against them,” Blackbird CEO Wendy Verlander told TechCrunch.