A hollow armistice

Op-Ed: Google should lead by example in patent wars

Elliot Bentley
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If Google were serious about ditching patents, they’d put their money where their mouth is and rise above current squabbles.

It appears to be universally agreed that software patent law in
its current form is broken. It’s frequently exploited by both
patent trolls and large international corporations with grudges to
settle, leaving independent developers and consumer choice in their
wake.

Google are more often than not on the receiving side of these
patent lawsuits. Oracle’s case against them included
allegations of patent infringement
, and it was Apple who
started
the current series of court cases against Android manufacturers
(and, indirectly, Google) after Steve Jobs famously declared he
would go “thermonuclear” against Android. In addition, companies
such as NTP have sprung from nowhere to
demand
large settlements for patent infringement of concepts
seemingly as basic as “delivery of electronic mail over wireless
systems”.

It’s no surprise that Google are all for patent reform, then.
“One thing that we are very seriously taking a look at is the
question of software patents, and whether in fact the patent system
as it currently exists is the right system to incent innovation and
really promote consumer-friendly policies,” said Google’s public
policy director Pablo Chavez,
speaking
at the Technology Policy Institute conference
yesterday.

As CNET reports, this is far from the first time the company has
expressed a hope for change. A year ago, their chief lawyer

described
patents as a “significant problem” that are “kind of
gumming up the works of innovation”.

But these words are hollow. Google’s purchase of Motorola around
this time last year may have initially sent shivers down the spines
of Android OEMs, but they haven’t made any use of its hardware
division. In fact, it partnered with Asus to build the Nexus 7
rather than utilise its own hardware resources: Motorola was
snapped up for its extensive library of patents relating to mobile
devices, now being used as a
weapon against Apple
.

If Google were truly interested in patent system reform, they would
rise above these messy disputes, rather than escalate them further.
It’s quite possible that they’re already lobbying for changes to
legislation, but what they really need to do is to take a risk
individually, and implement something like Twitter’s
Innovator’s Patent Agreement
(IPA).

This contract, drawn up and implemented last year, allows the
individual creators to prevent patents associated with their work
to be used in offensive litigation. Whether Twitter’s IPA will
stand up to the test of the current patent wars remains to be seen:
being legally binding, it’s more than hot air, but also assumes
engineers will be principled enough to decline exploitation of
their inventions.

Even so, for Google to implement the IPA – or something similar –
would be a truly brave move for the industry as a whole. Twitter
has few patents beyond pull-to-refresh, but Google
have an entire warchest.
By effectively laying down its arms the company could set an
example to the rest of the industry, and maybe even
legislators.

Sure, they would be leaving themselves somewhat exposed, but it
could be a watershed moment in the industry, spurring on
competitors to do the same – even if the situation seems unlikely
right now.

It’s been quite some time since Google even vaguely followed its
“don’t be evil” slogan. If they’re serious about making a stand
over software patents, it’s time to take action.

Photo by puuikibeach.

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