Updated: Google, nearly six years since it first applied for it, has finally received a patent for its MapReduce parallel programming model. The question now is how this will affect the various products and projects that utilize MapReduce. If Google is feeling litigious, every database vendor leveraging MapReduce capabilities – a list that includes Aster Data Systems, Greenplum and Teradata — could be in trouble, as could Apache’s MapReduce-inspired Hadoop project. Hadoop is a critical piece of Yahoo’s web infrastructure, is the basis of Cloudera’s business model, and is the foundation of products like Amazon’s Elastic MapReduce and IBM’s M2 data-processing platform.
Fortunately, for them, it seems unlikely that Google will take to the courts to enforce its new intellectual property. A big reason is that “map” and “reduce” functions have been part of parallel programming for decades, and vendors with deep pockets certainly could make arguments that Google didn’t invent MapReduce at all.
Should Hadoop come under fire, any defendants (or interveners like Yahoo and/or IBM) could have strong technical arguments over whether the open-source Hadoop even is an infringement. Then there is the question of money: Google has been making plenty of it without the patent, so why risk the legal and monetary consequences of losing any hypothetical lawsuit? Plus, Google supports Hadoop, which lets university students learn webscale programming (so they can become future Googlers) without getting access to Google’s proprietary MapReduce language.
So why get the patent at all? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt Google to have it, and it lets the company avoid the possibility of a patent troll stealing it and taking the fight to Google. Or maybe it wants the ability to assign patent rights for its MapReduce version. Say what you will about the ethics of software patents, but as long it doesn’t do evil by offensively enforcing this patent, you can’t blame Google for protecting itself.
Update: A Google spokeswoman emailed this in response to our questions about why Google sought the patent, and whether or not Google would seek to enforce its patent rights, attributing it to Michelle Lee, Deputy General Counsel:
“Like other responsible, innovative companies, Google files patent applications on a variety of technologies it develops. While we do not comment about the use of this or any part of our portfolio, we feel that our behavior to date has been inline with our corporate values and priorities.”