It might have been the most predictable schedule change in the history of legal conferences, but I allowed myself some faint hope that my Thursday trek out to Fisherman's Wharf would allow me to meet the elusive Patent Troll Tracker.
But the Tracker, a.k.a. Rick Frenkel of Cisco System, was not about to show up to this Patent Strategies conference where he had long been schedule to speak on the topic of “Exploring the Current Status of Patent Trolls: Myth, Reality, or Legend?”
“Since he’s been unearthed as the Patent Troll Tracker, he’s been laying low lately,” said the panel's moderator. The room chuckles lightly. Indeed.
The background: shortly after Frenkel revealed himself on Feb. 23, he was hit with defamation lawsuits from two East Texas lawyers, one of whom appears to have been been in pursuit of Frenkel since November.
This week, we've got more news.
First, new maneuvers from the PTT-tracked: Local press reports that both of those lawsuits were moved out of Gregg County, Texas, and into federal courts. One in E.D. Texas and one in Arkansas. Earlier ALM coverage of the lawsuits is here, free registration required. Both lawsuits name Frenkel's employer Cisco as well as the blogger himself.
The Tracker's boss speaketh: Cisco announced Monday that it has changed its corporate blogging policy in response to the Troll Tracker controversy, banning employees from anonymous blogging about issues they “have responsibilities for at Cisco.”
The company noted that “a few Cisco employees used poor judgment” by helping Frenkel and pitching his blog to others. But overall, it’s a pretty tame reaction. Cisco moved quickly to distance itself from Frenkel’s short-lived comment about the “Banana Republic of East Texas,” but all in all, the company isn't exactly throwing him under the bus. (There's no separate lawyers yet in the defamation suits.)
And the Tracker's peers weigh in: Patently-O author Dennis Crouch commends Cisco’s response and ruminates on the tensions of anonymous blogging. (link)
I'm still ruminating. High-powered blogging of the sort Frenkel was engaged in raises big questions about journalism in the age of participatory media. Reading an anonymous blog is kind of like seeing graffiti on a wall, even if it's clearly the work of a gifted researcher. At a conference last year I explained my confusion about how to approach reporting on the blog to a lawyer-blogger in attendance. For all I knew, I said, the author of Troll Tracker could be a congressional staffer trying to push forward the patent legislation. "Sure, he could be chief patent counsel at Microsoft," said the lawyer, laughing. (he was a pro-patent-reform techie guy who was a fan of Frenkel's blog.)
That suggestion seemed a bit over-the-top, but the truth turned out to be not so many steps away from that. Frenkel is a director of IP at Cisco. Corporate hierarchies much larger than my own tend to confuse me so I won't try to guess what Frenkel was directing while he was writing. (I did notice that he was a prolific writer, though; his opponents noticed that too, and it fueled their suspicion that Troll Tracker was a team effort.)
In the legal press, we're mainly concerned that less firey blogs might "Kill the Joy." Cisco's new policy inspired CNET to examine whether corporate employee blogs are a "lawsuit waiting to happen," and a new Troll Tracker story in Business Week, (via Patently-O), takes a broad look at how corporate blogging policies are evolving. This passage stuck me:
Cisco General Counsel Mark Chandler even cited the blog as a good independent source of information while in Washington lobbying for changes to patent law that would rein in trolls, unaware he was plugging the work of a Cisco employee.
That kind of symbiosis will be a "gotcha" moment for Frenkel's patent-wielding opponents, including the folks he sometimes called 'trolls,' which were companies that make a business of holding patents and often suing to enforce them. Some of them argued all along that his blog was a corporate plot, stemming from a group of companies decrying "patent abuse," Its likely author, or team of authors, was seen as a well thought-out ploy by the tech heavyweights that some in the "patent community" had taken to calling the "infringement lobby."
Frenkel has stayed silent for the time being. Interview requests from various ALM reporters were forwarded on to a Cisco spokesperson, and as I said, he wasn’t around on Thursday. The debate at the panel was muted, and the post-event chatter was about next week’s OceanTomo IP auction. (If the Troll Tracker shut-down means you haven’t had been getting your proper weekly dose of anonymous patent action, come on by!)
I expect folks there from very different sides of the old "troll" debate. I hope you all feel welcome in our town, the city of St. Francis of Assisi. I don't know if St. Francis ever had much to say on trolls, but was a good friend of the animals and could probably prevent a patent fistfight or two. Apparently he once calmed a man-eating wolf, see above.
In between Troll Tracker posts, I pointed out my colleague Zusha Elinson’s piece on Howrey’s new “anti-troll” ad campaign. It’s become a real conversation topic; this morning I see that three weeks after publication, it’s still the second most popoular story on the Cal Law web site.
A final note, my first IPLB cover story, "Amateur Hour," is now available on our web site! Happy day. Registration is required but it's free. The story is about ninjas and lawyers and Web 2.0. Seriously. Ninjas. I have a bit more to write about the reporting of that story, and I'll make a post on it over the weekend.