Tom Ewing

Privateers, mass aggregators and trolls in the messy patent world

​Patents may be helpful for commercializing new technologies and may effectively extend the boundaries of firms, but patents may also impose costs on other firms and to society. In his doctoral thesis, Tom Ewing investigates patent assertions via litigation and licensing to understand these activities and their roles in firm strategies.

​What challenge do you focus on in your research?

"Most if not all commercial agreements regarding patents are confidential; most litigations settle on confidential terms; some patent holders are even known to hide the full extent of their patent portfolios using nests of shell companies. While patents are publicly available legal documents, knowing who owns them and what they are doing with them is not straightforward. So, the challenge here is to peek into this often messy and complex world to get a better grip on what's actually going on."

How do you address the problem with your research?

"To get at this hidden data, I developed a set of chaining techniques that allow small bits of information about patents and/or their ownership or control to be assembled into a larger data mosaic that can then be meaningfully studied and compared with various theories of the firm."

What are the main findings of your research?

"I discovered various ways in which firms, particularly large ones, employ surrogates to achieve commercial objectives that would be difficult for these large firms to do by themselves. I named one of my discoveries 'patent privateering' because it resembles the way that warring nations in the past would commission pirates – known as privateers – to prey on the ships of their enemies. Patent privateering allows firms to use other, small patent-holding firms to complete commercial tasks with patents that they cannot do themselves without incurring various forms of retaliation from their competitors." (Explaining the pirates in the background of the photo)

"I also explored another service provider known as the 'patent mass aggregator' that spends billions of dollars to acquire patents and then commercializes them, including selling off small, concentrated bundles of patents to larger firms just when these firms need them for activities such as litigations. I have similarly investigated management decisions during litigations, and a class of firms known as patent assertion entities – also known as patent trolls. In summary, these specialty firms can be seen as strategic tools for extending the resources or boundaries for firms, particularly larger firms."

 What do you hope your research will lead to?

"It would be fantastic if more and more data about the commercial side of patents became publicly available. At the moment, most of this data is hidden, which among other things, limits the types of markets that can develop to commercialize patents. So, an ultimate end goal would be the development of a more open and sustainable market for patent commercialization."


Text compilation: Daniel Karlsson


The author will defend the thesis on 3 June 2022 at 13.15, see link on the thesis’ page

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Page manager Published: Mon 30 May 2022.