Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Infographic: 37 Android-related patent lawsuits (since 2010)

With yesterday's patent infringement suits filed by Microsoft against Barnes & Noble, Foxconn and Inventec with a US district court and the ITC, the total number of Android-related patent lawsuits has reached 37. Yes, thirty-seven. More than three dozen. Hard to believe but true.

Just to avoid misunderstandings, there are some disputes that consist of multiple lawsuits. For example, I previously published visualizations of such disputes as Apple vs. HTC/Motorola and Microsoft vs. Motorola, each of which consists of a number of suits.

Now I have -- with a little help from a friend who's good at graphics design -- created a chart that shows how lawsuits involving Android have exploded since last year. If you click on the graphic shown further above, you can see it in full size.

I have also created a PDF version that you can download from Scribd if that's your preferred format.

[Update] For sharing the infographic with others, especially via Twitter, you can furthermore use this Twitpic link. [/Update]

The infographic above leaves no doubt that Android faces more problems than any other software platform -- mobile or otherwise -- in the history of this industry. And the trend is undoubtedly that there will be even more of this before all is said and done and, hopefully, settled.

There are various reasons for all of this litigation. Let me name the most important ones.

Reasons for Android's patent problems

  • Obviously, Android's market share plays a certain role. But that's only a part of the explanation. Other computing platforms in history were far more popular and didn't create such a massive intellectual property problem for their commercial adopters.

  • In my previous blog post I raised the question of whether Google manages intellectual property matters diligently and respects right holders. For example, the way Google habitually "launders" software published under the GPL (open source license) for its purposes baffles me. The relevant version of the GPL -- GPLv2 -- has been around since the early 1990s, and Google is the first commercial operator to believe that a program can just cut out the copyrightable parts and deprive GPL'd software of all protection. A company that treats copyright this way -- also according to Oracle's allegations -- may be similarly arrogant and reckless when patents are concerned. Google just exposes its entire ecosystem to legal risks. If it goes well, Google reaps most of the rewards. If it doesn't, others will have to pick up most of the bill.

  • Google's own patent portfolio is, as I explained in January, far too weak for what's undertaken in connection with Android. While a company's own patent portfolio can't deter non-practicing entities (sometimes also called "trolls") from suing, it is at least very helpful in order to reach cross-license agreements with other major IT companies. Google is unable to do that. This is a serious strategic weakness, and it's in no small part responsible for the Android patent mess.

  • I mentioned that cross-licensing generally doesn't work when the other party is a non-practicing entity. What's required then is inbound licensing. There are patent holders with whom other mobile platform companies previously did license deals, but since Google doesn't seem to be willing to spend money on such arrangements, they go out and sue device makers. This is somewhat related to the point I made before about arrogance, recklessness, and a strategy based on exposing the ecosystem to legal risks.

The above list is not exhaustive, but it shows that there are reasons for the current flood of patent lawsuits related to Android -- and Google is definitely responsible for the most important ones of those reasons.

Also, Google is not simply a "victim" of patent aggressors. Just today, Google was granted a typical "troll" patent: US Patent No. 7,912,915 ("inventor": Google founder Sergey Brin) on "systems and methods for enticing users to access a web site". That's basically a patent on the idea behind the famous "Google Doodle". If you read the patent document, you can see that there's absolutely no serious innovation behind it. The patent office was apparently hesitant to grant it, but reluctantly did so after Google kept pushing for about a decade. A company that seeks to monopolize such basic ideas -- behind which there really isn't any serious technology -- apparenty loves patents. Even trivial patents (because the Google Doodle patent certainly does nothing to raise the quality of US patent grants). But Google's affection goes only to its own patents.

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