In recent times the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, HTC, Samsung and many more have locked horns in increasingly bitter patent disputes. Does this matter for consumers and what could the long-term implications be?
Even a hardened tech fanatic like me can’t help but groan at patent disputes. Patents are effectively a means of claiming ownership of a particular feature or way of doing something.
And most of the time companies will simply license the use of their patents to others. For example, both Apple and Google license Microsoft’s system for syncing email and contacts on a mobile. Money doesn’t always trade hands – sometimes companies trade the use of each others’ patents.
Sometimes, however, things get ugly. High-profile patent disputes used to be the domain of so-called ‘patent trolls’ – small companies that existed purely to patent ideas and sue those they believed infringed them for a profit. In the past, larger “legitimate” companies normally negotiated with each other and only occasionally came into conflict.
Now, though, the industry’s biggest companies are at each other’s throats, disputing patents left, right and centre. And they’re taking their disagreements public.
At the centre of it all is Google’s “free” Android operating system, which Google now claims is being victimised. Is this true and what does it mean for the man of the street?
Google: Apple and Microsoft are patent bullies
Google recently published a highly unusual attack on Apple, Microsoft and others for what it deemed anti-competitive activity. David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, said:
‘Android’s success has yielded something else: a hostile, organized campaign against Android by Microsoft, Oracle, Apple and other companies, waged through bogus patents… our competitors want to impose a “tax” for these dubious patents that makes Android devices more expensive for consumers.’
His complaints centre on bidding for a large patent portfolio. Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and others formed a consortium to bid for the patents, and outbid Google with a $4.5billion offer. Microsoft is now seeking license fees of $15 per Android device from Samsung, putting a price on what Google offers for free. Google feels this is unfair.
Not the whole story
If you believe Microsoft, however, Google isn’t being entirely honest. In fact, Microsoft claims it invited Google to join the patents consortium, but Google refused. A Microsoft employee went so far as to publish Google’s rejection email. The implication being that Google wanted the patents for itself, rather than sharing them with competitors. .
Further embarrassment has been heaped upon Google in its patent dispute with Oracle, however. Internal emails appear to reveal Google knew it was infringing on patents in Android and chose not to take a license.
This, and the revelation from Microsoft, has led many to accuse Google of wilfully infringing on patents. It’s Google’s fault, they say, and it’s paying the price of a risky non-conformist strategy.
What does it all mean for you and me?
Such disputes might keep the tech commentators busy, but for ordinary consumers, like you and me, it is a complete turn-off. Many of the problems are caused by the US patent system, which is widely regarded as flawed – but why should we care?
Google is correct in saying that these patent battles could lead to higher prices for consumers. Indeed, Microsoft already makes money from every Android phone HTC makes. It’s reasonable to believe this cost has been passed on to you and me.
However, even worse than higher prices, such disputes could have implications for smaller, innovative companies. If it’s so easy to patent ideas and concepts, even if you don’t use them, what are companies who are trying to make innovative products to do when they come up against such barriers?
Google is by no means the innocent party in this dispute, but its squabbles with rivals are symptomatic of a much larger problem; a problem that makes it increasingly difficult for new and emerging companies to succeed, resulting in less choice for consumers.