On the scale of surprises, this weekend’s news that British Telecom has become the latest major technology company to launch a patent dispute against Google is not at the high end. After all, the swarm of locust lawsuits gathering over Android is so large that soon the real question won’t be about who’s suing Google — but who isn’t.
Details of the lawsuit were uncovered by analyst Florian Müller of the FOSS Patents blog — who follows the legalities of open source products.
He points out that this filing is the end result of a failed attempt by BT to get Google to pay licensing fees on six patents covering wireless information and location services:
“BT filed its lawsuit on Thursday with the United States District Court for the District of Delaware… BT seeks damages — even triple damages for willful and deliberate infringement — as well as an injunction. The complaint suggests that Google refused to pay.”
BT has since issued a statement confirming the action, which Google has in turn chosen to rebut by suggesting that the case has no foundation, the claims are “without merit” and that the Californian company “will defend vigorously against them”. The truth, as is always the case with patent disputes, is lost somewhere in towering mountains of paperwork and documentation that will take company lawyers months for to sift through.
It’s easy to see BT’s move as just another drop in an ocean of disputes surrounding Android, coming as it does after similar suits from the likes of Apple, Oracle, Microsoft and eBay against Google itself and against manufacturers who sell Android-based phones.
But make no mistake, the British telco’s move does add to the pressure mounting on Google.
Google started with a buccaneering attitude towards mobile patents, motivated partly by its desire to crack open a lucrative new market dominated by long-standing rivals and partly by a stance against ludicrous software patents and patchy enforcement.
But every time the search giant finds itself embroiled in another case, it edges away from its attempt to challenge the patent system and toward being part of it. Indeed, Google’s own chief counsel Kent Walker said earlier this year that despite the company’s opposition to junk patents, it was starting to take an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach to the whole situation:
The patent system should reward those who create the most useful innovations for society, not those who stake bogus claims or file dubious lawsuits. It’s for these reasons that Google has long argued in favor of real patent reform, which we believe will benefit users and the U.S. economy as a whole.
But as things stand today, one of a company’s best defenses against this kind of litigation is (ironically) to have a formidable patent portfolio, as this helps maintain your freedom to develop new products and services.
Since then, of course, Google embarked on a $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility (a deal which has yet to close) which was chiefly motivated by its need to acquire defensive patents.
Google is slowly being maneuvered into a position where it’s no longer going to be a challenger to the system, but a major mobile patent holder and licensee in its own right. And of course the only reason it can get to that position is because it’s used its muscle from the rest of the business to subsidize its entry into mobile.
Using its dominance in search to become dominant in mobile isn’t exactly a Robin Hood move — whatever its motives. Hence the FTC’s antitrust investigation into its activities.
Sometimes there are fights where you wish everybody could lose.