Normally, when a company buys up a bunch of patents it may not need, you might think that it was readying itself to sue other companies. If that company isn't doing much of value, you'd call them a patent troll.
But Google says that it's actually planning to do the opposite. In making its $900 million bid for 6,000 patents put on firesale by the bankrupt company Nortel, Google has positioned itself as an anti-patent troll, snapping up the intellectual property so that other companies can't use it against the company or its ecosystem of developers. In a blog post yesterday, Google's chief counsel Kent Walker argued that acquiring the Nortel patents would serve as a deterrent. "But as things stand today, one of a company's best defenses against [patent] litigation is (ironically) to have a formidable patent portfolio, as this helps maintain your freedom to develop new products and services," he wrote.
Walker went even farther, though, arguing that Google's patent purchase ultimately meant that developers would have a clear field on which to play with the company's Android mobile operating system.
If successful, we hope this portfolio will not only create a disincentive for others to sue Google, but also help us, our partners and the open source community--which is integrally involved in projects like Android and Chrome--continue to innovate. In the absence of meaningful reform, we believe it's the best long-term solution for Google, our users and our partners.
Just about everyone in the technology world agrees that patent reform is necessary. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission released a 300-page report describing the malfunctions of the current patent system.
Perhaps because the system is so obviously in need of repair, most tech observers are taking Google's self-defense assertion at face value. "The danger, of course, is that if Google got this portfolio, the search giant might turn into something of a patent troll in its own right," wrote Geek.com. "It's always possible, of course, but I trust Google more than a lot of companies to live up to its own ethics."
The truth is, though, we don't know what Google will end up doing with 6,000 new patents. And it seems Google might be able to put that $900 million to a better end, perhaps even doing something more radical than just "reforming" the patent system.
"If Google manages to keep the Nortel patents out of the hands of a company that is aggressive about patent suits, or away from a patent troll, then it will be a good thing," argues Network World's Joe Brockmeier. "But it'd be better if Google were pouring that $900 million into lobbying to get rid of software patents altogether."