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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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The National Hockey League is in court battling a "patent troll."

TSN has learned the league is being sued in U.S. District Court by Affinity Labs, a Texas company that alleges the NHL is violating one of its patents relating to the transmission of game broadcasts on wireless devices.

The NHL's Game Center Live service, the lawsuit says, "is configured to enable a wireless handheld device to receive a streaming signal of a regionally broadcast NHL game on the wireless device, even when the... device is outside of the region of the regionally broadcast NHL game."

Affinity said its patent applications prove the company has patents for "a number of inventions relating to creating a new media ecosystem with a portable electronic audio device, such as a smartphone, at its centre."

Affinity's claims have not been proven in court and the NHL declined to comment. The NHL has not yet filed a statement of defence.

Affinity has been described in media reports as a non-practicing entity, or NPE, a term used to describe a company that doesn't actually use its patents but owns them to collect royalties and damages.

In recent years, the U.S. government has promised to crack down on the billions of dollars worth of litigation tied to patent claims, saying the many lawsuits threaten research and development and innovation by companies.

Companies sued by Affinity include Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, Blackberry and HTC.

Most NPEs buy patents they will use for litigation and sue many companies at the same time.

Affinity has a different strategy, the website ETnews.com reports. It says the company uses patents it developed to file lawsuits against market leaders. For instance, Affinity filed a patent lawsuit against Apple in 2009, and was in litigation with the company for three years. ETnews.com reported Apple settled out of court with Affinity and purchased the patents used for litigation.

Robin Feldman, a professor at the University of California-Hastings and an expert on patent law, says the NHL has reason to be concerned.

While the U.S. government has said "patent trolls " need to be controlled, perhaps by forcing litigants who lose at trial to pay the legal fees of their opponents, it's hard to predict a jury. Earlier this month, for instance, Feldman said a Delaware jury ordered Symantec to pay $17 million to a company called Intellectual Ventures.

The company had sought $299 million.

"It's possible that the patent claim against the NHL is weak, but it still will cost the NHL a considerable amount of money to investigate this and to litigate," Feldman told TSN. "A sports team or league like the NHL would be a very tempting target for an NPE. The league most likely has deep pockets and little experience with the patent system. That makes it a perfect target."