Google unveiled a “patent pledge” that it hopes will shield cloud software and big data developers from the type of litigation that has engulfed the mobile phone industry. The pledge, which is like a non-aggression pact, covers ten patents related to Google’s MapReduce technology.
The pledge, which Google announced on Thursday, says that developers are free to use or sell the technology described in the patents without fear of future lawsuits. The shield applies, however, only to projects based on open source software that is available to all.
Google’s patent pledge appears intended to complement the open-source software licenses that allow programmers to build on each other’s work. Such licenses, like the GNU General Public License, grant anyone the right under copyright law to use designated blocks of software code; these rights, however, can be undercut by competing patent rights.
The ten patents included in Google’s pledge include a controversial one issued last year that covers a form of parallel processing known as MapReduce. The patent gave rise to fears that Google would be able to monopolize tools like Hadoop, which is an integral part of the so-called “big data” revolution that is fueling a wide range of new products and services. Google’s pledge appears intended to allay that fear.
In a phone interview, a person at Google familiar with the project explained that the MapReduce patent pledge is intended to help the emerging big data and cloud software industry avoid a litigation train-wreck like the one that befell the mobile industry. (In recent years, an arms race of patents covering smartphones has led to a relentless series of global lawsuits which have limited the spread of software technology and increased prices for consumers.)
Google suggests it will add other patents to its non-aggression pool and is inviting others to do the same. In theory, this will lead to an open and expanding workshop of tools for cloud developers; however, there is no guarantee it will work out this way.
One problem is that the pledge will have little effect against patent trolls like Intellectual Ventures, which buy up old patents and use them to file lawsuits against productive companies. The trolls are largely immune from retaliation because they operate through shell companies and don’t actually make any products that can be the subject of a counter-suit.
The Google source said the pledge may not be effective against trolls but that it may curtain the practice of “privateering” — where major companies give patents to trolls in order to harass rivals or in return for a cut of the proceeds the trolls obtain. This person said that, under the terms of the pledge, Google reserves the right to sue anyone who financially benefits from such lawsuits.
There is also the question of whether the Google pledge is legally enforceable. Typically, promises to the world at large don’t carry any legal force because they lack what lawyers call “consideration.” The Google source, however, said those who rely on the pledge could likely prevent Google from going back on the pledge through a doctrine called “promissory estoppel.”
In the bigger picture, the Google patent pledge represents part of a growing effort among Silicon Valley companies to rein in a patent system that many believe has become over-extended. Twitter, for instance, last year introduced an employment contract that promises its engineers that their inventions won’t be used to fuel the patent wars.
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