The US patent system isn’t just broken. It’s being abused to curb innovation, handicap inventors, and redirect company resources toward pointless and lengthy litigation.
Now, Google says it has a new idea for fixing the mess. Today the search giant unveiled a program it’s calling Patent Purchase Promotion, a new marketplace where patent holders are invited to tell Google about patents they’re willing to sell, at a price they themselves have set. The marketplace will be open from May 8 to May 22, according to the company, and Google will let submitters know whether it’s interested in purchasing their patents by June 26, with most payouts happening by late August.
“Unfortunately, the usual patent marketplace can sometimes be challenging, especially for smaller participants who sometimes end up working with patent trolls,” wrote Allen Lo, Google’s deputy general counsel for patents, in a blog post announcing the program. “Then bad things happen, like lawsuits, lots of wasted effort, and generally bad karma. Rarely does this provide any meaningful benefit to the original patent owner.”
The program is geared toward companies, but Google intentionally left participation requirements open so that individual inventors could also take part, Kurt Brasch, a senior patent licensing manager at Google, wrote in an email to WIRED.
Opening the Process
The patent landscape has long been fraught with dysfunction. Some firms tangle themselves up in patent wars, filing suits against each other ostensibly over the right to push the limits of innovation. But it can often seem like the end goal is merely to hamstring the competition or make massive amounts of money through litigation rather than actually making something.
Then there are the “trolls”—typically shell corporations that don’t actually make or sell anything—who seek to enforce patents they own. Inventors, whether they work within companies or independently, have to navigate this minefield of ill-intentioned players when thinking about creating new technologies. Firms and activists, meanwhile, hope to avoid having valuable patents fall into the hands of the trolls. For Google, offering to buy patents first before the trolls have a chance to snag them makes sense as a company with the ability and desire to put them to use.
It’s good for everybody to know what Google finds out. Adi Kamdar, EFF
But the process could also offer Google other advantages as a kind of market research. The company could find out what good patents are out there and what their holders think they’re worth. Google’s open-submission approach would seem to be a novelty in the arena of protective patent-buying. Yes, there are patent management firms like RPX, which buys up patents defensively so they can’t be used as ammunition in the patent wars. But the process of how these companies acquire new patents—and for how much—tends to be hidden from the public.
For that matter, Google itself would not say exactly how much it will reveal about the results of its own experiment, or how open it will be about what it does with the patents it acquires. Whatever its goals, the company is in a unique position to reach out to patent holders both large and small. The more interesting question, however, is how well the end result of the program will align with Google’s famous corporate motto: “Don’t be evil.”