A lot of people are pointing us to Google's latest blog post on patents, in which it very aggressively talks about the danger of bad patents
, specifically when it comes to hindering future innovations around Android. Most of the article focuses on theNortel patent purchase
, and notes the oddity of Apple and Microsoft actually working together on something (an issue that is raising some Justice Department interest
). This follows on Google recently becoming more vocal
about problems with the patent system:
A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 (largely questionable) patent claims, and our competitors want to impose a “tax” for these dubious patents that makes Android devices more expensive for consumers. They want to make it harder for manufacturers to sell Android devices. Instead of competing by building new features or devices, they are fighting through litigation.
This anti-competitive strategy is also escalating the cost of patents way beyond what they’re really worth. Microsoft and Apple’s winning $4.5 billion for Nortel’s patent portfolio was nearly five times larger than the pre-auction estimate of $1 billion. Fortunately, the law frowns on the accumulation of dubious patents for anti-competitive means — which means these deals are likely to draw regulatory scrutiny, and this patent bubble will pop.
A few years back, there were some stories about how Google's legal department was willing to take on big important issues
, not just because they would help Google, but because it would strengthen the overall internet and innovation. That obviously would help Google too, but there was a sense that the company would fight for issues beyond just those that impacted Google. In recent years the company seemed to shy away
from some of those fights, so it would be interesting to see if fighting against bad patents brings Google back around.
Of course, as some are noting, even as Google is getting vocal, it appears to be pulling some punches
-- focusing on the specific patent problems it faces, rather than speaking out against the fundamental problems of the patent system itself. In fact, nearly a month ago, Glyn Moody wrote an excellent piece explaining how Google's best line of attack here would be to go after the very concept of software patents
, something the company hasn't shown a willingness to do just yet.
My guess is that the company would certainly be behind an effort to do away with software patents, but that it recognizes that it's a massive uphill battle at this point. Tim Lee, in the Forbes link above, argues that it actually makes a lot of sense for Google to "stick its neck out" on software patents being a problem. Not only would an awful lot of developers (both inside and outside the company) support Google if it came out against software patents, it would also help to establish Google's overall position in its legal battles. Many patent lawsuits are about just getting companies like Google to pay up. If Google takes a public stand that it doesn't believe any software patents are valid, then it also sends a signal that it will fight such shakedown attempts in court as far as it can go. That can help scare off the trolls, who are just hoping for a quick payout.
In the end, I don't think Google will take such a step, but I think it would be a welcome addition to the discussion. In the last few weeks, with the This American Life patent episode
and the Economist's recent worries about patents
, it seems this issue is finally getting some mainstream recognition. A push from Google might help it go even further, and finally breakthrough the clutter.