A hollow armistice

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

Elliot Bentley

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.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments