Google publicly accuses Apple, Microsoft, Oracle of patent bullying
August 03, 2011
Get out the fire extinguishers, because the patent fight between the tech titans is heating up. On Wednesday, Google publicly accused Apple and Microsoft of banding together to take down Android, using their winnings from recent Novell and Nortel patent auctions as ammunition.
In a post to the Official Google Blog, Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond said that Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, and others have waged “a hostile, organized campaign against Android” by snapping up patents from Novell and Nortel and asking Google for high licensing fees for every Android device. According to Drummond, the companies in question are attempting to “make it more expensive for phone manufacturers to license Android (which we provide free of charge) than Windows Mobile; and even suing Barnes & Noble, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung.”
It’s not as if Google didn’t bid on those same patents—Google made an opening bid on Nortel’s patent portfolio at $900 million in July, only to be curb-stomped by the $4.5 billion bid made by the winning consortium of companies that includes Apple, Microsoft, and RIM. Nortel’s portfolio includes patents on 3G and 4G wireless networking, optics, voice processing, semiconductors, and more, so it was certainly in all of the companies’ best legal interests to acquire them as fast as possible.
When combined with the 882 Novell patents that Microsoft, Apple, EMC, and Oracle attempted to buy late last year, it’s no wonder Google feels left out in the cold. In less than a year, some major tech heavyweights have managed to throw enough money at the patent system that they are beginning to take an offensive position—especially in the case of Apple, with its numerous ongoing lawsuits.
“A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 (largely questionable) patent claims, and our competitors want to impose a ‘tax’ for these dubious patents that makes Android devices more expensive for consumers,” Drummond wrote. “They want to make it harder for manufacturers to sell Android devices. Instead of competing by building new features or devices, they are fighting through litigation. Unless we act, consumers could face rising costs for Android devices—and fewer choices for their next phone.”
The timing of Google’s post is quite appropriate. Earlier this week, a number of iOS developers put out a call to band together themselves in order to fight patent trolls like Lodsys and Intellectual Ventures which have begun to go after tiny, independent companies for patent infringement. The topic of patent trolls was also recently highlighted by NPR in a This American Life episode called “When Patents Attack,” bringing the US patent system’s up- and downsides to regular office watercoolers all week.
From Drummond’s blog post, it’s clear that Google considers the patent system to be working against the company. (“Patents were meant to encourage innovation, but lately they are being used as a weapon to stop it,” reads another part of Google’s post.) But could some of Google’s attitude be sour grapes after losing out on the Nortel patent auction? After all, the company did jump into the mobile world knowing that patent wars are common, intellectual property analyst Florian Müller reminded Ars.
“Google decided to enter the wireless communications sector, which has been notoriously litigious for quite some time,” Müller told Ars. “Android’s problem isn’t any single patent holder or any particular conspiracy—it’s the aggregate effect of dozens of lawsuits. I actually think that all those patent holders just do what’s the normal course of business for them, as opposed to an organized campaign, for which Google doesn’t present any evidence.”
(Google thinks Oracle in particular is drumming up an anti-Android conspiracy, but Müller points out that the judge presiding over Oracle’s lawsuit against Google “has strong suspicions of Google having willfully infringed Oracle’s intellectual property rights.”)
Indeed, the existence of any kind of hard evidence that Google would need in order to push a legal case against Apple, Microsoft, and others is hard to come by from a blog post alone, but the company did note that it was “encouraged” by the US Department of Justice giving those companies some antitrust scrutiny. It’s possible that a legal case may be forthcoming, but in the meantime, Google is (at least) working on getting its core user base fired up by making these accusations public.
Apple, for its part, did not respond to our requests for comment on Google’s accusations by publication time. Microsoft did not have a statement prepared, but the company told Ars that it would get back to us “soon.” (We’ll update when we receive it.)
Update: A Microsoft spokesperson contacted us to say that the company is unable to comment at this time.
Update 2: Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith tweeted Wednesday evening: “Google says we bought Novell patents to keep them from Google. Really? We asked them to bid jointly with us. They said no.”
Update 3: Microsoft Corporate Communications Lead Frank X. Shaw also tweeted on Wednesday evening with a photo of the e-mail wherein Google declined Microsoft’s offer to join the consortium.