Indie Film Plays Patent Litigation for Laughs

Old Patent Books

Patent litigation doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy. And yet an indie film about a tech startup beset by one of those litigious licensors popularly known as “patent trolls” has hit the festival circuit after an small IP law firm kicked in $15,000 to get it produced.

“I said to my business partner,`This is a once in a lifetime opportunity’,” Kirk Cesari of the Austin, Texas-based intellectual property firm Cesari Reed told Bloomberg BNA. “How many movies get made about patents?”

“The Trolls” tells the story of a promising startup faced with a demand that it pay $40 million for a patent it is allegedly infringing. Rather than paying up or closing shop, the entrepreneurs stumble upon a novel method—involving a very old patent that never expires and George Washington’s first executive order—that allows them to patent the process of demanding licensing payouts and “troll the troll.”

The idea for the film—which comes out on DVD and online Oct. 11—came to writer/director Lex Lybrand during his regular 90-minute commute into Austin for a video production job. Lybrand listens to podcasts to fill the time and heard podcaster and comedian Adam Carolla ranting about his battle in the patent owner-friendly Eastern District of Texas with the licensing firm Personal Audio LLC, which holds a patent it claimed was vital to podcasting.

Lybrand thought patent trolling could be good fodder for a comedy, and that a film could raise the profile of an issue the general public doesn’t know much about.

When his IndieGogo campaign to fund the production fell more than $15,000 short of its $20,000 goal, Cesari Reed offered to make up the difference.

Cesari and Lybrand are both quick to point out that the film is a satire and won’t hold up to legal scrutiny—especially the part about the never-expiring patent. Still, they hope it will impart some real world lessons about patent system abuses.

“That’s totally made up,” Lybrand said of the film’s central McGuffin, “but there’s a lot of stuff in the film that’s more absurd that’s totally true.” As an example, Lybrand cited a research trip he took to Marshall, Texas, the location of one of the Eastern District courts, where he met a man who manages mailboxes that help out-of-state patent owners claim residency.

“He rents mailboxes that are like a classroom organizer in an elementary school—and for thousands a month,” he said.

Lybrand hopes a recent spate of popular culture treatments of patent trolling, including a riff by John Oliver last year on his show “Last Week Tonight,” will boost interest in the film.

“The goal is to make this a little more accessible to people who would care about this if they knew about it,” he said.