What we did when a patent troll asked for our help

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If Less Annoying CRM were a brick-and-mortar, we’d have that clichéd sign on the wall: We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. One of the perks of being a small bootstrapped start-up is that we don’t have to please anyone by meeting quotas or desperately running up numbers. If someone is an asshole, we apologize that our system isn't a good fit for them and wish them the best of luck in finding something better. Adios.

That philosophy encountered a pretty jarring pothole, however, when a trial user contacted us and—in a totally blasé manner—asked for help customizing his CRM to track of the cease-and-desist letters he would be sending out soon. His research team, he explained, would be trawling the web and locating offenders who were infringing on his hard-fought, newly-granted software patent, and then his lawyers would be drawing up notices asking for license fees from those offenders.

Howdy! I’m a patent troll. Can you give me a hand with some trolling?

As you might expect from a software company founded on the tenet of being "Less Annoying," we loathe patent trolls and everything they represent. But we found ourselves confronting a new and difficult question for our business: Where is the line? Does refusing service to an admitted patent troll set a precedent that we might regret later? And do we care?

The Apple of Knowledge

The first problem: there could be dozens of patent trolls using Less Annoying CRM right now. We have absolutely no way of knowing that without violating our ToS and Privacy Policy—and more importantly, without blatantly disrespecting the privacy of our users. We don’t go poking around in anyone’s data unless asked to provide assistance. It's not our data, despite the fact that it’s been entrusted to our care, so it's not our business.

That means that if we reject a single guy because he seems like he’s a jerk, we’re basically punishing him for asking for our help—for speaking up. Those hypothetical other patent trolls using Less Annoying CRM get a pass because they’ve been silent. The thought didn’t sit well.

On the other hand, there had to be a line where, if a user asked us for help setting up their CRM for a particular purpose, it would be enough to trigger us to immediately shut down their account. And so, the question became...

How Bad is Too Bad?

Thought experiment time. Let’s replace our patent troll with a cocaine dealer. While I’m certainly no expert on the market, I suspect that our product could actually be useful for an independent drug dealer. So, if a cocaine dealer wrote us asking for a demo on how to customize his CRM, would we shut down the account? Our answer: Yes. Our ToS forbids using the CRM for illegal activity.

The problem is that patent trolling isn’t illegal. In fact, it’s obnoxiously legal—it leverages the power of laws designed to foster innovation to instead stifle it.

“What if the KKK wanted to use our software?” That’s Tyler, our CEO, thinking out loud. “You know, to organize hate rallies or whatever. Would we tell them to [go away]?” We consider ourselves decent people, and as such, we’re not fans of the KKK’s messaging. But KKK rallies aren’t illegal, or at least not inherently so. On the contrary, they're protected free speech. Shut down the KKK account? Our answer: No.

What about the Church of Scientology, or the Westboro Baptist Church? Can you turn away an account based on their “religious” beliefs, however ridiculous, hateful, or exploitative you may find them? (And let’s not even get into the slightly terrifying notion of possibly pissing off either entity’s infamous legal teams.) Shut down? Answer: No.

We bounced similar ideas around and, in the end, decided that there was only one place to draw the line.

The Letter of the Law

At least for now, we use the law as our guide. We don’t give anyone the boot based on the nature of their business unless they make it clear that they plan to use the CRM to facilitate illegal activities.

We hate patent trolls because they're enemies of the "free as in speech" nature of technology. We strongly believe tech should be open, free, and unbiased—and since we tell our users that they own their data, that means we can't legitimately inject our own personal opinions into the matter without being hypocritical. The law become the only logical limit, since it is the point at which these issues cease to be a matter of opinion.

Of course, if you’re an asshole, you'll still get the boot—that policy remains firmly in place.

I gave the patent troll a demo of our system, complete with genuine recommendations about how he could best track his entire process from start to end. I was definitely a little relieved that he had a few hang-ups about Less Annoying CRM’s feature set. While we did set up customization for him, ultimately he abandoned his account. Probably the best ending we could have hoped for.

“I really don’t want this guy’s money,” Tyler said at one point. We’re glad not to have it.

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What do you think? Did we draw the line in the right place? What would you do if a user wanted to leverage your company’s tools to do something despicable?

Let me know in the discussion on Hacker News!

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