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These empty offices are costing the US economy billions

Over the past few years, there's been an epidemic of lawsuits from patent trolls. These are companies that make no useful products themselves. Instead, they buy up broad patents — usually related to software — and then use them to sue companies that infringe them by accident.

One of these firms' many targets is software developer Austin Meyer, who was sued for selling an app that included widely used Android copy protection technology. Meyer wanted to see what patent trolls look like in the flesh, so he traveled to Texas, where many patent trolls are located.

What he found was a lot of empty offices. Apparently, most of these companies couldn't even be bothered to hire a receptionist to keep the office open during business hours. A woman tells Meyer that one of the offices has been empty for a long time.

So why have the offices at all? Having an office in a town like Longview, Marshall, or Tyler allows these companies to file lawsuits in the Eastern District of Texas, which is notorious for its patent-friendly judges. But while trolls need to have "offices" in east Texas to file lawsuits there, they don't have to do much of anything in those offices. So they sit empty most of the time.

This would be merely a funny story if not for the fact that these small offices are inflicting big costs on companies that actually produce useful goods and services. Defending against a patent infringement lawsuit can cost millions of dollars, and patent trolls filed thousands of lawsuits last year. One study found that patent trolls cost the economy $29 billion in 2013.