The Austin Chronicle

Austin Filmmaker Takes on Patent Trolls

Lex Lybrand's new comedy The Trolls is patently ridiculous

By Richard Whittaker, September 30, 2016, Screens

Indie filmmakers don't normally get to publicize their low-budget comedy on CNBC sitting next to Adam Carolla. "This one does," said Lex Lybrand, writer and director of tech comedy The Trolls.

The Man Show star inspired the Austin filmmaker's new comedy after a bizarre legal case. In 2014, Carolla was sued by a Texas company over The Adam Carolla Show, when the firm claimed they held the patent on podcasts. It sounds insane, but Carolla spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting off their claim. In the process, he made headlines exposing the bizarre world of patent trolls – firms that acquire loosely worded patents, and then use them to pry royalty payments and legal settlements from unsuspecting firms.

This seems like grist for a courtroom drama, but Lybrand saw the inherent surreal comedy. In The Trolls, an Austin-based start-up designs a battery that will never go flat, only to see their world-changing creation decimated by a patent troll. Their plan for revenge is simple: Find their own patent, and troll the trolls. "Patent trolls are infuriating," he said, "but that's really only if you think from the perspective of the person getting screwed over. As an outsider, it's a lot easier to see the absurdity."

Once Lybrand started researching the topic, he quickly fell down a rabbit hole of legal insanity, baffling precedent, and forum shopping. "It used to be, you set up a shop and you patent all the things you do. Now somebody can say, 'I had the idea of doing that before you. I can't actually do that, and I don't actually have anything that does that, but I have a piece of paper that says I thought of it first.' Or somebody thought of something that's similar enough."

The more bizarre the reality got, the quicker the comedy wrote itself. He said, "When you dig into it, and find out how easy it is to get a patent in this country, and how many patents are issued for the same thing, and how easy it is for those companies to individually sue the same company, sometimes multiple times by multiple patent trolls, it's ridiculous. And then I just have to come in and add the toilet humor." And even some of that work had been done for him. "The first patent ever issued was for fertilizer: literal bullshit."

Lybrand admits that, as "a movie for tech nerds and legal nerds," The Trolls is an unconventional topic for an indie comedy. But then, he's used to reaching beyond the conventional indie audience. He attributes the success of his last movie, 2014 psychological horror Meet Me There, in no small part to the social media presence of one of his stars – Dustin Runnels, aka WWE wrestler Goldust (see "Meet Me There Meets Horror Halfway" Jan. 16, 2015 ). That film hit No. 4 on iTunes with little mainstream movie media coverage, and Lybrand knew he needed a similarly unconventional approach to promoting The Trolls. He said, "The movie blogs that I read every day won't want to write about us, but the tech blogs will."

That's how he ended up on that CNBC couch with Carolla. "It was kind of surreal," Lybrand said. "I had to sit next to the guy and say, 'Your public anguish was entertainment fodder for me.' When it was over, he shook my hand and said, 'Thank you for shooting this movie.'"

The Trolls free screening with cast and crew Q&A, sponsored by the Austin Forum on Technology & Society, Wed., Oct. 5, 6:15pm, at the Stateside Theatre, 719 Congress. The film drops on DVD and VOD Tue., Oct. 11.

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