Google’s Growing Patent Stockpile

Over the last few years, Google executives have had plenty to say about patents. According to Google, patents, particularly software patents, are mostly bogus, largely low-quality, and used in court by companies that can’t innovate to hurt consumers and stifle true innovators.

But data from the U.S. Patent Trademark office shows that Google has been working very, very hard to win more patents on its own ideas. It has accelerated its activity to such a degree that Google inventors—among them founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page—are now winning 10 patents every day the patent office is open, covering everything from automated cars to balloon-based data networks. For comparison, consider that in all of 2003, Google was awarded four patents.

The recent deluge of patent documents offers fascinating insights into Google’s latest ideas (see “Is This Why Google Doesn’t Want You to Drive?”). It also demonstrates that Google is committed to having one of the world’s largest patent portfolios. The company is on pace to be awarded around 1,800 patents this year. That could be enough to vault Google, for the first time, onto the year’s list of top 10 patent recipients, ahead of industrial giants like General Electric and Intel.

Google urgently needs more patents to defend Android, its free operating system for mobile phones. Android is the most popular smartphone software; about 1.5 million Android phones are activated each day. But Google and handset makers like Samsung face increasing legal challenges. Just last month, they were sued in Texas for patent infringement by a company that represents Apple, Microsoft, and BlackBerry. One of the patents covered in the lawsuit was filed even before the search company was founded.

Publicly, Google continues to disparage patent claims, which it says amount to a tax on smartphones that raises prices for consumers. The company’s top lawyer, David Drummond, has said that a typical smartphone could be covered by as many as 250,000 patents, but that, like most patents, they are “largely questionable” and for the most part “dubious.”

Nonetheless, filings show that Google started to realize as early as 2007 that it needed to play the patent game, and in a big way. That was the year Apple launched the iPhone, which came to market defended by a thicket of patents and trademarks on everything from the “home button” to the design of its rounded corners. Steve Jobs, stung by a $100 million loss in an intellectual property fight over the iPod a year before, had apparently made good on his vow “to patent it all.”

Google must have understood how weak its own position was. When Jobs announced the iPhone, Google had earned only 38 patents since its founding. Thirty-eight! To equal Apple’s phone, Google rushed to release Android, relatively old software that Google had acquired. It is open source, and was poorly defended with intellectual property.

From then on, Google wouldn’t keep product features or new ideas as trade secrets anymore; its researchers, business managers, and advertising experts would work with a rotating cast of outside attorneys to patent whatever ideas they could. Only such a dogged focus can explain the exponential increase in Google patents. Each year, Google has won, on average, twice as many patents as the year before. That pace of growth appears to be both faster and more sustained than that of any other large company. Google is now the third or fourth largest winner of software patents, after IBM and Microsoft. 

Google patents chart

Gregory Aharonian, a technical analyst who works with lawyers to overturn patents, says that Google, like other big companies, knows that if it swamps the overworked patent office with applications, it will win patents, even if its ideas aren’t necessarily that novel. “The general rule is, the more patents a company has, the more closely the quality of their patent portfolio approaches the quality of all patents, which is to say the majority of all of these patents are invalid,” says Aharonian.

Still, in 2011, Eric Schmidt, then Google’s CEO, maintained the company’s public posture when the first major smartphone patent lawsuits began. Google would innovate, not play legal games, he said. “We have seen an explosion of Android devices entering the market and, because of our successes, competitors are responding with lawsuits as they cannot respond through innovations. I’m not too worried about this,” said Schmidt, now Google’s executive chairman.

But Google was worried. It needed more patents. It needed an arsenal so big that others would be afraid to sue, lest Google would sue back. Last year, in its largest acquisition ever, Google spent $12.5 billion to buy Motorola Mobility, mostly to grab its trove of 17,000 patents and 7,000 patent applications. It has also purchased more than a thousand patents from IBM and picked up others from telephone companies and auto parts makers (see “Google’s Troubled Search for Valuable Patents”). Google says it now controls more than 51,000 patents and patents pending.

The latest patents Google has been winning won’t necessarily help with Android. But they will help the company defend new products and features. Among the 177 patents Google has won this month alone, one went to Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google X, the company’s “clandestine” lab, and seeks to secure rights for a way to create indoor maps for mobile phones (see “Stores Sniff Out Smartphones to Follow Shoppers”). Another is for a method of determining the 3-D location of traffic lights so automated cars can see them. Brin’s name appears as the sole inventor on an approach to analyzing patterns in Internet data. Google has won patents on voice interfaces and flying wind turbines. With its recent creation of a medical-research company called Calico (see “Google to Try to Solve Death, LOL”), it is likely to seek patents on anti-aging research as well.

Google has signaled that its intentions remain defensive. The company has supported patent reform legislation that would make it more difficult both to win software patents and use them in court. It also sought positive publicity by making a few dozen patents freely available to open source projects, pledging not to sue “unless first attacked.”

What’s up for debate is whether Google’s blistering rate of patenting means the company is inventing more—and more valuable—technology than it did before. Is Google 500 times as innovative as it was a decade ago just because it is winning 500 times as many patents? Or have circumstances forced the search giant into behaving like the kind of company it professes to despise: the kind that spends a great deal of time, money, and effort on legal maneuvers of dubious value to the public?

Asked for comment, a Google spokeswoman released a prepared statement: “We’re proud of the innovation by our engineers that has let us file a growing number of high-quality patents.”

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