I won't if you won't: Google opens a position in the patent pledging game

Apr 2, 2013

Basically the 'pledge' is an undertaking not to 'assert' its patents (in this case in a specific area) unless attacked first - a sort of nuclear first strike non-option.

The 10 patents in question all relate to its MapReduce, a way of processing big data sets and a technology Google has open-sourced with implementations now widely available. The pledging of the patents to OPN means they will remain open to use under more circumstances. Google says any software can use the patents and that, furthermore, the pledge will remain in force if the patents are transferred (though it's difficult to see what value they would have if encumbered by an OPN pledge).

Google also maintains that it hopes this particular pledge will be the start of many more, so it presumably intends to use the technique to protect itself in specific ares where it feels most vulnerable, such as in Android and/or Chrome. Android, of course, was the trouble-spot that first dragged Google into the patent ownership game, buying Motorola's handset business partially (if not wholly) to protect itself against the likes of Apple and Microsoft.

So cheers all round?

Not a bit. Florian Meuller, the blogging sage of patents, maintains the move is designed to divert attention from what Google is doing with the rest of its portfolio. (see Florian Meuller blog)

Problem - quite how such a tactic might work in the eagle-eyed world of technology patents is beyond me. Indeed, if it were a fine and cunning plan to smokescreen some wrong-doing then, on the evidence so far, it's been an epic fail. Since the announcement last week Google has drawn fire on the patents issue from every quarter.

For patent consultant Mueller, though, it's all just gesture politics. He points out in his blog that the high profile pledging of hundreds of patents by companies in the past had not so far changed the industry dynamic, mostly because the big pledges - for instance, 500 patents (IBM) and 1,600 (Oracle) - still only represented a small proportion of the respective patent portfolios.

It's not the patents you pledge, says Meuller, but the ones you don't that count. In Google's case in particular, there is no transparency, so other companies don't actually know what the company is holding back.

He has a point of course. Still, it seems hard to conceive of Google going to all that trouble to try and build trust(?) just to spring a patent surprise on a victim later by finding one in the same area nobody knew it had.

So why the rage? Meuller accuses the company on being on a long-term mission to devalue intellectual property for its own advantage. As a man who makes his living from IP this grudge is perhaps understandable. For the rest of us? Perhaps it's the "holier than thou" feel to the word "pledge" (as in the peace, virginity, alcohol.. ) that sticks in the craw?

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