The crux of the dispute between DeLorme and BriarTek is whether the latter’s patent is valid, or whether it’s sitting on an invalid patent and using it to pressure companies to pay a licensing fee.

DeLorme CEO Mike Heffron and Peter Brann, the company’s attorney, believe the patent is not valid because it does not protect a novel idea – a two-way emergency communication device capable of text messaging and using a satellite network. Brann said BriarTek doesn’t make any effort to market or sell its own product even though it claims it competes with DeLorme’s inReach communication device. Instead, BriarTek is seeking licensing fees from companies that want to use its patent. In addition to DeLorme, BriarTek originally included another company in its complaint before the International Trade Commission. That company, U.K.-based Yellowbrick, opted to sign a licensing agreement with BriarTek.

BriarTek approached DeLorme about paying a licensing fee, but the demands were “preposterous,” Brann said.

“We’re not going to call them a patent troll,” Brann said. “But you would need an inReach device to find one of their products. They claim they’re competing, but they’re not really choosing to compete in the market. Their choice instead is to pursue litigation in front of the International Trade Commission.”

A patent troll is a derogatory term used to identify a company that collects patents without an intent to use them for anything other than collecting licensing fees and suing others for infringement.

While Brann declined to apply the description to BriarTek, others in the industry weren’t so shy.

“BriarTek was being opportunistic, as patent trolls often are,” said Doug Ritter, director of the Arizona-based Equipped to Survive Foundation, which provides reviews and news in the survival gear industry. “If you look at the history of the technology, it’s hard to imagine how their patent could be considered valid.”

Ben Ellison, the Camden-based editor of Panbo, a website that covers the marine electronics industry, echoed Ritter’s comment.

“This is sort of patent trolling. The company has been around a while making military hand-held safety devices of a different nature, but this looks predatory,” Ellison said. “I personally feel a little had because I tested their product like the rest of them, but it seemed odd to me because they haven’t been trying to sell it much. Look around on Google and try to find that product to buy. It’s not easy. In retrospect, that’s not where they saw money. They saw money in the patent and licensing fees.”

BriarTek CEO Joseph Landa dismisses the allegations of being a patent troll as “name calling.”

“I understand that some people may not like nor understand the patent system as it is today,” he wrote in an email. “I am not a patent expert, however a group of people that are experts (the ITC) have judged all of the facts in this case and made their ruling. To my understanding that ruling includes findings of infringement and bad faith. When you don’t like the answer it is understandable that you would try to change the question.”

Landa added that BriarTek has been manufacturing and selling safety beacons for 17 years and has fielded more than 200,000 beacons worldwide, including its hand-held emergency communication device, the Cerberus. Landa said customers have included the U.S. Presidential Inaugural Committee and crowd control detail, and Taiwan’s navy.

“How many U.S. companies manufacture electronics domestically and export to Taiwan?” Landa said. “BriarTek is not a troll. … That is just name calling.”

John Fuisz, BriarTek’s attorney, added that patent trolls –known as non-practicing entities in patent law – are not allowed to file complaints with the International Trade Commission.

DeLorme holds 16 patents itself, so it’s not a case where the company doesn’t respect another company’s intellectual property, Heffron said.

“We value people’s thoughts and ideas and legitimate technology. We have partners on the inReach system that we have licensed technology from in order to get the capabilities we wanted for the inReach devices,” he said.

These types of fights over patents of questionable validity are why the country’s patent system needs to be reformed, Heffron said.

“It is extremely difficult as a small business to operate in the U.S. with these types of regulations and rules that are nondefined and nondescript. We can’t even get a list of what we did wrong so we could modify our behavior if we wanted to,” he said. “The fate of small business not only in Maine, but everywhere in the U.S., is in real jeopardy. It’s just baffling that we’re having to fight these types of government organizations.”