Richard Lang comes across as a mellow Californian. The youthful-looking 52-year-old lives on an 11-acre estate among apple trees in the hippy town of Sebastopol, north of San Francisco, where he plays guitar in local bands and his wife runs an "equine experiential learning institute" that helps clients get in touch with themselves by riding horses. But there's nothing laid-back about his strategy at Burst.com, the Santa Rosa (Calif.) company he co-founded 18 years ago. With just two employees, Burst holds 10 U.S. patents, and its focus is on asking big companies to license its technology -- and suing them if they don't.
In March, 2005, Burst won a $60 million settlement from Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ). The next target, Lang says, is Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL ), which he says infringes on Burst's patents covering superfast transmission of content, such as songs and video, over networks. He's seeking a chunk of the tech giant's burgeoning music revenues, and says he plans to sue in mid-April if no settlement is reached.
That makes Burst, in many people's eyes, a "patent troll." In recent months tech giants such as Microsoft, Intel (INTC ), and Yahoo! (YHOO ) have vilified the trolls -- tiny companies that don't make anything but simply hold a portfolio of patents. Their business plan consists of cashing in on this intellectual property by suing traditional corporations, the types that produce real products. That infuriates the targets of these suits, who claim that the legal risk forces them into exorbitant settlements, and that the ensuing payoffs increase costs for consumers. For many, the poster child for trolls is NTP Inc., the tiny company that extracted $612 million from Research In Motion Ltd. (RIMM ), the maker of the BlackBerry wireless e-mail device.
While Lang won't discuss his hopes for the Apple claim, his lawyer cites as a point of reference other cases in which plaintiffs were rewarded more than 2% of infringing revenues. That would be about $200 million so far for Apple.
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