2013 was a record year for patent lawsuits, which have been rising rapidly. As University of Iowa law professor Jason Rantenan recently pointed out, "in the 16 years from 1994 until 2010, the annual number of patent lawsuit filings doubled; it doubled again in the three years from 2010 to 2013." Today Google announced a new initiative to try and keep patents out of the hands of patent trolls, entities whose only business is amassing intellectual property and filing lawsuits. Google is calling this new effort the Patent Purchase Promotion. The pitch is simple: make it easier to sell your patents to Google than to the bad guys.
Trust us, not the trolls
"Patent owners sell patents for numerous reasons (such as the need to raise money or changes in a company’s business direction)," wrote Allen Lo, Google's deputy general counsel for patents. "Unfortunately, the usual patent marketplace can sometimes be challenging, especially for smaller participants who sometimes end up working with patent trolls. 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."
"We view this as an experiment."
Like many things Google does, this project is a sort of open beta. "We view this as an experiment," Google wrote in the program's FAQ. "We are looking for ways to help improve the patent landscape, and we hope that by removing some of the friction that exists in the secondary market for patents, this program might yield better, more immediate results for patent owners versus partnering with non-practicing entities."
Lo doesn't offer any assurances in the post that Google would not use these patents for litigation in the future. And the program makes no effort to open the marketplace to other like-minded tech companies, something that would benefit the entire ecosystem. Google is basically asking patent owners to trust them. The company has pledged in the past to only use its patents defensively, suing only if someone sues it first. Of course, a company's stance on patents can shift over time as it moves from young disrupters to entrenched incumbents. 2015 could also be the year Congress takes action. Or not, knowing Congress.