Google logoDavid Drummond, the Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of Google has gone on the record and addressed the patent litigation situation that Google’s Android finds itself into, with foes like Microsoft and Apple, among others, on the other side of the fight.


Here’s the context: Android is arguably a formidable mobile platform, and it is gathering success and it is accelerating with no end in sight. Microsoft and Apple have sued Google partners like HTC and Samsung with some degree of success to hinder, or “bank on” Android’s success. For instance, HTC is currently paying royalties to Microsoft for every Android handset it produces. Ironically, Microsoft makes more money from the Android royalties than they do with Windows Phone 7.

Can’t fight back with patents

David Drummond says that the competition recently bought a bunch of patents from Nortel with an “anti-competitive” spirit… and is currently lobbying encouraging the justice department to look into this matter. I’m not a lawyer and although it may sound “uncool” to buy patents with the idea of hindering a competitor, it may not be illegal. Let’s wait and see.

Being a relatively young company, Google does not have as many patents as more established players like Nortel, Microsoft, Apple or Oracle and can’t fight on an equal footing. Furthermore, Apple can claim that Android has gotten a lot of inspiration from iOS, which led Samsung to halt/delay sales of its Galaxy Tab in Australia. It’s a small victory, but it may be replicated elsewhere. Apple and Microsoft are getting some momentum with this, so they are unlikely to stop.

In this open letter, Google is basically appealing to the public, saying: “Unless we act, consumers could face rising costs for Android devices — and fewer choices for their next phone”. I’m not sure if the average consumer will act, or care, as most smartphones are subsidized anyway, so regardless of the brand, a new high-end smartphone is worth about $200 with a contract.

Android does not really save the “out of the pocket” money – at least, in the high-end. On the mid-range and low-end, this is a different story, but again, the carriers or handset makers are currently absorbing that cost.

But certainly not defenseless

This is certainly a interesting fight. On one side, you have Google, the most powerful web company with a search engine that generates endless cash which allows it to “give away” most of everything else for free. This is indeed a powerful weapon. Some people are also complaining that Google appears to favors its own sites in its search engine, but this is yet another story.

On the other side, an alliance of very powerful adversaries use old-school techniques, like patent litigation, to hinder (or profit from) Android’s success.

Don’t try to fight “legal” with “moral”

The Department of Justice may end up doing the arbitrage here, but it’s not a matter of morality, it’s a matter of legality. To take an obvious example: if Intel was to completely sell its X86 patents to a company named XYZ,  could XYZ sue an unlicensed competitor that is producing X86-compatible chips without owning the patent? Most likely.

Are patents slowing down innovation? Some say “yes” (usually those who don’t own the patents), others say that patents are a good thing for innovation: it makes intellectual property (IP) available on the market… for those who can afford it and pay their fair share. They would argue that they would be more than happy to license their IP, and that “true innovation” would not infringe their patents to start with.

In the end, patent don’t sue people. People sue people. Patents are just a tool used (for the better or worst) to regulate the use of intellectual property. The ultimate question is: does Android infringe on those patents? The authorities will have to decide. Check the full Google post on their official blog.

What’s your take on the whole thing? Do you fear that Android handsets will become more expensive?

Update: Microsoft has replied to this

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