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Posted at 12:23 PM ET, 04/04/2011

Google looks to cultivate its own patent thicket

Google just looked up “How do you defend against patent lawsuits?” The Mountain View, Calif., company has won a first round of bidding on the patent portfolio of the bankrupt telecom firm Nortel Networks.

Google announced the news in a blog post by Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel, that described this “stalking-horse bid” as a defensive maneuver that would thicken its legal armor against current and future patent-infringement suits.

Wrote Walker: “Google is a relatively young company, and although we have a growing number of patents, many of our competitors have larger portfolios given their longer histories.”

Toronto-based Nortel’s news release cites a $900 million value for Google’s bid, which sets a minimum price for an auction to be held in June. The release cites a total of some 6,000 patents worldwide; Google counts some 2,600 patents or patent applications in the U.S. among that total.

This move should surprise nobody who’s been following tech patents.

Google has been the target of numerous patent-infringement lawsuits; dozens have targeted its Android mobile operating system alone. The dubious, generic nature of many of these patents — such as those claimed by firms like NTP and Interval Licensing, whose sole output has been patent litigation — has not slowed the rush to court.

Google says it has never sued first in a patent lawsuit, has won many of the nearly 100 patent suits filed against it and has cooperated in efforts to narrow or overturn other patents.

Now, evidently, the company needs a stronger patent portfolio to pursue a common remedy to this type of situation: “cross-licensing” settlements that let all companies involved share each other’s patents. Buying a few thousand patents from a failing firm, even if it has to outbid other deep-pocketed firms, is a logical use for the $35 billion in cash, cash equivalents and short-term securities that it reported at the end of its last quarter.

But some of Google’s own patents show it to be part of the problem. On March 22, the company won patent 7,912,915, “Systems and methods for enticing users to access a web site” — that is, how it puts “Google Doodle” logos on its home page on special days. Google co-founder Sergey Brin applied for this patent back on April 30, 2001, and nobody I’ve talked to there seems to know what he was thinking at the time. But the company hasn’t moved to offer an unrestricted, royalty-free license to this patent, the quickest way to end this absurdity.

Google may be able to solve its immediate legal vulnerability by throwing money at the problem. But that won’t do anything for the core issue of a too-generous patent system that has lost sight of its constitutionally-assigned mission of promoting the progress of science and useful arts. Only the authors of the patent system, our representatives in Congress, can. Walker's post says that Google will continue to advocate for patent reform, but will anybody listen?

By  |  12:23 PM ET, 04/04/2011

Categories:  Policy and politics

 
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