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Google pledges to use patents defensively

Google pledges to use patents defensively

Google has announced that it will not target open-source projects with patents covered under its new Open Patent Non-Assertion Pledge - but that's a short list so far.

Google has pledged that it will not sue any open-source software projects for infringement of a selection of its impressively wide-ranging patents, and is encouraging others to do the same.

Software patents are an extremely divisive subject: those who hold them frequently claim that they are vital to encourage innovation, while those of a more open-source bent claim that they do the exact opposite. A software patent can be, and sadly often is, used to extort cash from the competition - or even to put them out of business entirely - should they come up with a similar process for achieving the same goal. Questionable software patent cases in recent memory include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen suing a raft of companies regarding website functionality, the Discovery network suing Amazon over its digital distribution system, BackWeb suing Microsoft over BITS, and Implicit Networks suing pretty much every technology company under the sun.

The patent world has even generated its own business model, that of so-called 'intellectual property' companies who exist purely to purchase unused patents from other companies and then use them to force royalty payments and damages out of alleged infringers. Described as 'patent trolls' by those who oppose the concept of software patents, it's a lucrative business model for many including IP specialist Eolas which sued Microsoft for $512 million before setting its sites even wider.

Google has taken the first steps along the road to ensuring it cannot be accused of such behaviour, announcing that it will be exempting selected patents from its arsenal. While it will retain said patents, it has pledged that it will not use them against any open-source software projects that choose to make use of the technology, reserving them instead as defensive measures in case Google itself is sued.

Described as the Open Patent Non-Assertion (OPN) Pledge, the company's announcement means that open-source projects that bear a striking resemblance to technologies developed at Google can breathe a little easier. 'We pledge not to sue any user, distributor or developer of open-source software on specified patents, unless first attacked,' explained Duane Valz, Google's senior patent consultant, in a blog post on the matter. 'We hope the OPN Pledge will serve as a model for the industry, and we’re encouraging other patent holders to adopt the pledge or a similar initiative.'

Before getting too excited, however, there are limits to Google's largesse, chief among these being the number of patents covered by the pledge: far from extending to its many thousands of patents, so far the company has only announced 10 - all relating to MapReduce, the big-data processing system the company developed for its search database - with the remainder still open for use as lawsuit-fodder. The pledge also only covers open-source projects: if a company develops a closed-source product that could infringe one of the OPN patents, Google is still free to sue the company, its distributors and even its users if it so chooses.

Despite this, it's a clear step forward and includes some helpful measures that could give open-source projects a boost including a section that ensure that the OPN pledge is in force for the life of the patents even if Google sells said patents to a third party.

'Over time, we intend to expand the set of Google’s patents covered by the pledge to other technologies,' claimed Valz. 'We hope the OPN Pledge will provide a model for companies looking to put their own patents into the service of open-source software, which continues to enable amazing innovation.'

7 Comments

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mi1ez 29th March 2013, 10:46 Quote
This could be great if done properly...
rollo 30th March 2013, 11:15 Quote
Sounds like a recipe for disaster, As long as your work stays open source they wont sue you but if you ever want to go closed they can sue the crap outta you.

To me it sounds like there happy to see people use there search bits and bobs as it will be good for them but if they want to go closed source and edit the code then there could be problems.
Phil Rhodes 30th March 2013, 12:36 Quote
The portfolio of patents that's actually involved in this is so minute that I don't think it can be anything other than a publicity stunt.
Harlequin 30th March 2013, 12:58 Quote
rollo sorry but that's simply not true


creative labs had the open project of OpenAL - they then closed it.


and whilst older versions can be developed on the open source license , the latest stuff requires a fee paying and no one sued them
Artanix 30th March 2013, 19:47 Quote
I'm pretty sure this could be used in this manner:

You create something open source that is incredible, using IP owned by Google.

So, from there if Google then decide to take your open source project, make it private and continue to develop it themselves into something profitable or not. You pretty much have to bend over and take it?

...They could even tell you to stop developing it any further, or risk getting sued?

I'm jumping the gun here, but I assume this is how it would go if they wanted it to?
schmidtbag 1st April 2013, 15:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Harlequin
rollo sorry but that's simply not true


creative labs had the open project of OpenAL - they then closed it.


and whilst older versions can be developed on the open source license , the latest stuff requires a fee paying and no one sued them

I think the difference here is there's not really enough competition or ambition to fight such a thing - it's not nearly as hard to make a new audio library than say, a graphics library. Put a fee on a relatively unpopular product that used to be open source and nobody will care enough to use it. Suing Creative for OpenAL is kinda like mugging a child - you might get something out of it but the effort is overall a waste of time and it just makes you look like an ass.

I'm sure Google's decision on not suing open source projects is for a few reasons. One, there's probably not much profit in it. Google will ditch their own products, regardless of how popular they are, if they don't make enough profit (or, they'll litter it with ads). Google also does a lot of open source activity themselves, so suing open source projects would seem hypocritical. They are legally allowed to use the source code of other open source developers (for their own open source projects) and not be obligated to pay them, which in turn becomes a profit for them. And lastly, they might do it for a political reason by seeming like the "good guys" compared to Apple who will file lawsuits just because you exist.

The reason behind making something open source or closed source is also something to consider, like GPU drivers for example. AMD and Nvidia probably don't make their proprietary drivers open source because the source code may have company secrets in them. They also might make it closed source because they don't want other people tampering with the drivers, redistributing them, and then have customers complain that something isn't working properly when the company has nothing to do with it. Though, I'm not saying that Google is all-kind and would gladly look the other way in a situation like that.
Griffter 2nd April 2013, 08:16 Quote
mmmm , tipping google has made something in this line which infringes on someone else's patent and trying to let them say on record anyone can use theirs for open source. At that time google will come out with their thing and the other company cant sue... well played sir... well played.
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