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Google: Software patents are bad, so we’re accumulating lots of them

Google is trying to fight legal battles in the press by arguing that they’re on the sensible side of software patents (the side that thinks they suck, effectively).

But they have a lot of their own software patents, of course, and they’ve placed a bid to buy Nortel’s:

But as things stand today, one of a company’s best defenses against [predatory patent] litigation is (ironically) to have a formidable patent portfolio, as this helps maintain your freedom to develop new products and services.

This is true: the best defense against a patent infringement suit is to find some way that the plaintiff is infringing on your patents and counter-sue, with the expectation that it’ll be settled relatively painlessly and cheaply.

This game, of course, is only winnable by a handful of very large companies. If Microsoft sues Google, Google can probably find a countersuit in their portfolio and force Microsoft to back down. But if Google or Microsoft sue Twitter, DropBox, Panic, or any other smaller software company that we all love, the small company will lose every time. In the patent wars, like most litigation, the one with the most money (and the most patents) almost always wins. In most cases, it’s not even worth trying to put up a defense.

Google is using this blog post to pre-spin their attempt to get a much larger patent portfolio so we don’t all accuse them of trying to accumulate too many patents, since that’s “evil”:

So after a lot of thought, we’ve decided to bid for Nortel’s patent portfolio in the company’s bankruptcy auction. … 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.

Sure. It’s in everyone’s best interest. Unless Google wants to sue you, or the vendor of a product you use, for patent infringement.

They won’t, because they Do No Evil™, right? But, as the industry sees (and collectively ignores) on a regular basis, Google’s “morals” — as much as a massive corporation with thousands of employees can embody behavioral standards — can be flexible when there’s a good business case.

Google’s not looking out for the public good, or “innovation”. Google’s looking out for Google. They have to.

Any other purchaser of these patents would probably be just as potentially problematic in the future. The U.S. patent system, especially for software, is truly dysfunctional and stifles far more innovation than it protects. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that they’re going to be “good” with their patents forever.