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John Oliver Throws Patent Trolls Under the Bridge on 'Last Week Tonight'

John Oliver
Courtesy of HBO

John Oliver on "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" on April 19, 2015.

You can add "patent trolling" to the list of formerly boring topics, including net neutrality, infrastructure and government surveillance, recently covered by John Oliver on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. During Sunday's episode, the host and former Daily Show correspondent took on so-called "patent trolls," companies whose sole purpose is to purchase patents covering broad ideas who then bog down actual inventors with litigation.

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"Most of these companies don't produce anything, they just shake down anyone who does," Oliver explained. "So, calling them trolls is a little misleading. At least trolls actually do something. They control bridge access for goats and ask people fun riddles. Patent trolls just threaten to sue the living sh-t out of people. And believe me, those lawsuits add up" to the tune of half a trillion dollars since 1990.

"Half of a trillion dollars, " Oliver said. "Let me out that in context. To lose other people that amount of money, Johnny Depp would have had to star in The Lone Ranger over a hundred times a year for twenty-five years. That's a horrifying amount."

So, how did the United States get into such a mess? Oliver explained that in part it comes down to the type of patents being issued. "The patent office is supposed to certify inventions that are 'new, useful and non-obvious.' Incidentally, all the adjectives that Tom Cruise would say he's seeking in an ideal mate. But during periods of big technological change, they can get overwhelmed and certify patents that they shouldn't."

According to Oliver, this happened in the 1800s with railroads and more recently in the race develop software. In one case, a man who created a flight simulator program for Android devices was sued by the owner of patent that basically describes how any Android app would operate.

"This company, Uniloc, is essentially claiming it is entitled to piece of every Android app," Oliver said. "That technically means they could show up at the offices of Tinder and demand a cut of everything Tinder has created. Which, I assume, would be a pile of STD's, sad orgasms, and shards of human self-esteem. That's the business model."

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