Thursday, August 8, 2013

Google drip-feeds the open source community with periodic patent pledges that don't really matter

Today Google announced that it pledged 79 more patents to open source under the terms known from its March 2013 pledge relating to ten patents, which I described as a PR stunt. Based on the announcement it appears that these are typical enterprise software patents, which makes sense given that Google acquired them from IBM and CA -- companies that have, as Google notes, themselves made certain open source patent pledges.

Google itself points to a study according to which a modern-day smartphone potentially infringes on 250,000 patents. (I'm not saying that this is the right number, but the number is high for sure.) Smartphones are multifunctional. Still there's a lot of software patents out there that cover technology that is usually not implemented in a mobile device. In light of this, I can't see why it makes a significant difference (let alone a material difference) whether Google "donates" 10 patents (as it did in March) or 89 (the ones from March plus the ones pledged today). Relative to the number of patents that a piece of software potentially infringes, and also relative to tens of thousands of patents held by Google (including the ones for which it acquired Motorola Mobility), contributing to open source software projects is not significantly safer than it was before. (I'm not taking a position here on whether contributing to open source is safe or unsafe; this is just about whether today's pledge is a game-changer, and it definitely isn't.)

It also doesn't make Google a major benefactor of the open source community. About eight years ago, IBM had pledged 500 patents, and Sun approximately 1,600. I criticized those pledges as well, at the time. But 500 is more than 89, and 1,600 is a lot more than 89.

The problem with those patent pledges is usually not what's in them; it's what's not in them. For whatever reason, Google still reserves the right to assert tens of thousands of patents against open source projects.

If Google wants to help others (open source or not) navigate the patent thicket, why doesn't it lead by example and list all of the patents it holds? Why doesn't it officially and actively support of Rep. Peter Deutch's End Anonymous Patents Act? (By "support" I mean deeds, which speak louder than words.)

Why doesn't Google just "donate" one patent (Motorola's pager synchronization patent), which has been repeatedly found invalid (and is without the slightest doubt going to be invalidated by the Federal Patent Court of Germany in November) but which Google is still enforcing trollishly against Apple, to the community of German iCloud users? That would make a difference because these people would get push notifications of new emails back, and since this is just a dead patent walking, there would be no cost involved from a reasonable and cooperative patent holder's perspective.

It's still not clear what Google's motive is. Apparently it plans to make more announcements like the one today. What does it hope to achieve? Devalue intellectual property in general (though Google advocates excessive royalty levels for standard-essential patents)? Divert attention away from yesterday's defeat? I don't know. Not yet, at least. But I do know that today's announcement has no significant value to open source, and no impact whatsoever on Android-related patent litigation.

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