Summary:

Google, after getting burned in the smartphone wars, is acquiring patents like ever before — even as the company continues its crusade to fix the country’s broken patent system.

Google Glass patent

Google received nearly 2,000 patents in 2013, which is a significant jump from previous years and reflects the company’s determination, as it moves into new fields of technology, to avoid the sort of legal exposure it has faced for years in the smartphone market.

The new patent figure for Google comes by way of the Financial Times (sub req’d), which cites an annual report by research firm IFI to claim that Google nearly doubled its patent claim from the previous year when it was only number 21 on the list with 1,151 new patents (Apple was 22). Last year’s list, which is dominated by IBM, can be seen here and suggests Google is now in the top ten. Update: the new list is out and Google is #11 with 1,851 patents.

Google’s patent push comes as at a time that it is aggressively patenting technology related to wearables, and especially its Google Glass ocular system. According to Barry Brager, the founder of IP research firm Perception Partners, Google does not want to be dependent on other suppliers to control the rights for Glass.

“They’re thinking vertically. It mirrors the Apple model of acquiring selectively so they can own the full system to their platform,” said Brager in a phone interview last year, adding, “Apple wants the wrist but Google’s the only one heading to the head.”

A troubled patent system

Patents, which offer a 20 year monopoly, are a way for companies to tell potential competitors to stay away as they seek out new technology markets. They are also a growing source of controversy.

In the past two decades, the US Patent Office has handed out millions of software patents that critics say cover obvious technology or that reflect basic concepts that shouldn’t be patented in the first place. Such patents have helped fuel the interminable smartphone wars between Apple and Google-allied companies like Samsung at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation fees.

Google has gotten the worst of this litigation, which helps explain its decision to beef up its patent portfolio. At the same time, however, Google has been a vocal advocate for patent reform and continues to take measure to protect cloud developers and the Linux eco-system from patent lawsuits.

In recent years, low-quality patents have also given rise to an epidemic of “trolls,” which use patents to bleed the start-up economy, but don’t make anything. The patent problem has become so severe that it will come before both Congress and the Supreme Court this spring.

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