Thursday, October 29, 2015

Google-SAP cross-license agreement announced: is SAP once again critical of software patents?

Google has previously announced various patent cross-license agreements, with partners including (but not limited to) Samsung and Cisco. Not with Apple and Microsoft, though: those announcements merely related to the withdrawal of lawsuits, not to actual license agreements.

Today, Google and SAP have announced "a long-term patent cross licensing agreement that covers a broad range of products and technologies."

It's not unprecedented for SAP to agree with Google in the context of patents. SAP has previously joined Google in supporting Samsung against Apple's pursuit of injunctive relief over patents covering (certain aspects of) minor features. But today's announcement contains a rather interesting quote from SAP's chief IP counsel:

"We are proud to announce this important agreement with Google, a global leader in technology," said Tony DiBartolomeo, Chief IP Counsel, SAP. "Giving talented engineers and developers the freedom to build great products is key to promoting innovation. Patent cross-license agreements like this one increase freedom to operate and prevent distractions from unnecessary patent litigation. And, like Google, SAP welcomes similar discussions with like-minded companies."

The second sentence ("Giving ...") appears to imply that software patents restrict the freedom of talented engineers and developers to build great products, and are, therefore, an impediment to innovation. The third sentence proposes cross-license agreements as means of increasing "freedom to operate" and calls patent litigation unnecessary and a distraction from innovative activity.

That's clearly a much more critical view of (software) patents than merely supporting the philosophy of Justice Kennedy in the eBay case that injunctions over minor features would give patent holders undue leverage.

SAP is living (in an abstract sense) proof that innovation in software, contrary to what many patent professionals claim all the time, is not dependent on patent protection. When SAP came out of nothing and became the most significant non-American software company, software patents weren't available--neither in the U.S. nor in Europe. For a long time SAP had no software patents, and even a while after it started filing for some, it had less than a handful.

Based on what I once heard from credible sources, Hasso Plattner, SAP's former CEO, was philosophically opposed to the notion of patenting software. But SAP may have felt forced to play the game everyone else was playing, and at some point, SAP's management believed its in-house patent attorneys that software patents were strategic assets for the company. I saw SAP patent attorneys at government roundtables and in the European Parliament, lobbying aggressively for software patents.

In 2005, the European Parliament rejected a proposed directive on computer-implemented inventions (more accurately and commonly referred to as the "EU software patent directive," though it's a fact that software patents already existed in Europe and continue to exist, because the exclusion of software patents defined in the European Patent Convention had already been vitiated beyond recognition by the European Patent Office and, to a lesser extent, national courts). Before the decisive vote, SAP placed an ad in the European Voice, a Brussels-based weekly on EU affairs published by the Economist Group, calling on Members of the European Parliament to vote in favor of the proposal. That ad came in handy for the movement opposing the bill: the liars supporting software patents (including the European Commission) had said all the time that the legislative measure was not at all about software, just "technical inventions," and had pointed to computer-controlled refrigerators and car braking systems, but SAP doesn't make any products of that kind: SAP is purely a software company, so its ad exposed the CII lie.

Now, more than ten years later, SAP appears to be part of the Google-led movement that is rather critical of software patents and those seeking to extort true innovators (ab)using patents of usually very questionable quality.

I hope SAP has now come full circle.

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