A Field Guide to Trolls
This elderly blog post was updated April 13, 2012.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published A Field Guide to Copyright Trolls, which is useful as far as it goes, but it omits all of the other species of intellectual property trolls. As a service to WC’s readers, and with apologies to the fine folks at EFF, WC offers a more complete field guide, identifying and describing some of the other species of trolls and related leeches that feed off of dubious property claims and bad manners in the 21st Century.
Perhaps the most common is the Patent Troll. This pest files broad form patents, usually in “soft” intellectual property like software programs, and then attempts to extort money from anyone writing a remotely similar program.
The species was accidentally created by the U.S. Supreme Court when it granted patent protection to software algorithms. Perhaps the best known example of the species is Paul Allen.
No matter how much money the Patent Troll may already have, or how ridiculous the claim of patent infringement, the Patent Troll will keep demanding more money.
Patent Trolls aren’t confined to computer software and algorithms. The pests occur in many industries. In some cases, for example the cell phone industry, they have created a kind of litigation gridlock by their various claims and counter-claims. WC suspects such antics are only amusing to the lawyers involved.
The Copyright Troll thinks any use of the word “the, “a” or “and” is an infringement of their prior use of the word, and attempts to extort money for the perceived infringement.
The Copyright Troll has been around much longer than the Patent Troll, and several sub-species have evolved.
Probably the most common subspecies is johndough. The subspecies feeds by filing a blizzards of lawsuits against persons unknown (“John Does”) and hoping that one of the lawsuits generates money. A representative example would be the U.S. Copyright Group (USCG), which has filed several “John Doe” lawsuits in Washington, D.C., implicating well over 14,000 individuals. Some scientists speculate that johndough may be a law firm mimicking a true troll.
A second subspecies, selfinflictus, may be in danger of extinction. The best known example of the subspecies, Righthaven, LLC, was recently kneecapped by a federal judge. Righthaven sued anyone who used more than five lines from content on which it claimed a copyright. Even for a troll, it has disgusting habits. Just last week, a judge in a Righthaven case strongly suggested that a post on another site was protected by the legal doctrines of fair use and implied license. In other words, that the business model – for a loose definition of that term, was fatally flawed. Update: and Righthaven was tagged for another $32,000 on November 10, 2011 for claiming copyright when it didn’t have it.
Music Trolls, a/k/a RIAA Trolls
The Music Troll was apparently created by a group of unknown record companies in reaction to declining music sales in the recording industry. Like most such monsters, its actions arguably have only worsened its creator’s problems. The premise of the Music Troll was that if you sued enough people they’d buy something from you.
It’s utterly amazing to WC that no one stopped to think about this premise for a moment. Sometimes you have to wonder if anyone thinks at all. But WC digresses…
Sometimes called the Recording Industry Association of America (“RIAA”) Troll, it has filed tens of thousands of lawsuits against citizens who share music in violation of RIAA’s interpretation of the law. Aided and abetted by dubious actions of Congress, RIAA has issued of a subpoena to a recently deceased 83-year-old woman, an elderly computer novice, and a family reportedly without any computer at all. While the RIAA Troll has gotten some impressively large jury verdicts, and a lot of publicity, record and CD sales have continued to shrink. The RIAA Troll still thinks declining music sales is because of music sharing, despite the evidence. That evidence is that “Downloads have an effect on sales that is statistically indistinguishable from zero.”
(There is no proof it was Phil Spector‘s idea, although his mugshot admittedly looks remarkably like a RIAA Troll. It may just be a coincidence, but RIAA’s rate of filing lawsuits has declined noticeably since Spector began serving his sentence for the second degree murder of Lana Clarkson. But WC digresses… Again…)
In Internet slang, an Internet Troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.
WC assumes his readers are thoroughly familiar with this species, and don’t require examples.
This is admittedly an incomplete bestiary. If WC’s readers have examples of other kinds of annoying trolls plaguing the second decade of the new millennium, they are invited to provide descriptions in comments.
The Fremont Troll is not a troll at all, but an exceptionally clever and well-executed bit of art work. A very large bit of art work, as it were.
It was brilliantly parodied by Terry Pratchett in his short story, “Troll Bridge.” Pratchett had been in Seattle for a book signing, and a fan, after many banananana daiquiris, took Pratchett to see the sculpture. One thing led to another.