Google will buy patents to keep them out of trolls’ hands

Google's Patent Purchase Promotion is a two-week experiment in which patent holders can offer to sell their patents to Google for whatever price they feel is fair. The program is designed to keep intellectual property out of the hands of patent trolls.

Virginia Mayo/AP/File
Google's Patent Purchase Promotion is meant to encourage patent owners to sell their intellectual property to Google, rather than to patent holding companies. Here, the Google logo is shown at the company headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

On Monday Google announced the Patent Purchase Promotion, an experiment designed to keep intellectual property out of the hands of so-called patent trolls.

Between May 8 and May 22, Google will allow patent holders to describe their patents and name a price they’d be willing to sell them for. Then over the summer, Google will review the submissions and buy some of the patents, keeping them from being acquired by patent trolls.

Patent trolls are companies that make money, not by creating and selling products, but by collecting patents and then threatening to sue other companies for infringing on those patents. Patent trolls often buy patents from companies that are going out of business and are eager to sell off their intellectual property.

Software patents are sometimes written so broadly that they describe tools and methods used in many different software programs. A troll holding such a patent can threaten to sue almost any software company for patent infringement, and because defending against such a lawsuit is expensive, many companies opt to pay thousands of dollars in licensing fees to the troll in order to avoid a court battle.

The Patent Purchase Promotion is designed to make a dent in the growing number of patent lawsuits by making it easier for patent holders to sell their intellectual property to Google than to patent holding companies. Google says it will review all the submissions received during the two-week window and will let patent owners know by June 26 which patents the company wants to buy. The goal, Google says, is to close transactions on all the patents by late August.

There’s not much guarantee that Google won’t use the patents it acquires to sue other companies in the future, and the Patent Purchase Promotion doesn’t allow other tech companies to bid on patents they’re interested in. Back in 2013 Google signed a good-faith pledge to use its patents defensively, meaning Google won’t sue open source software developers for using its patents unless Google itself is sued first. But the company isn’t bound by the pledge, and its views on patent usage could change over time.

The Patent Purchase Promotion could be a good model for other technology companies to emulate. When intellectual property falls into the hands of patent trolls the result is generally wasted time, effort, and money paying licensing fees or defending against lawsuits. This dynamic has a chilling effect on innovation, too, particularly from small companies who may fear they’ll be held responsible for violating a patent held by a troll. If more patents end up in the hands of technology companies who can actually use them to develop new software and hardware, everyone will be better off.

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