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Google is giving free patents to startups to fight patent trolls

Google is becoming the Professor Oak of the startup world. It's planning to give some small companies a pair of starter patents to help them out when it comes to getting off the ground and defending their intellectual property. Google doesn't appear to be making money off of the program, but it does have an end goal: as a condition of the program, companies receiving Google's patents will have to join a patent licensing network that's meant to help Silicon Valley defend against patent trolls — companies that sue over patent infringement without actually making any products. Google says that encouraging smaller companies to get on board with the program "is just something that we think makes great sense."

"The bigger the network gets, the more protection the membership gets."

Google is calling this scheme, which appears to have been first spotted by TechCrunch, the Patent Starter Program. Only 50 startups or developers will be accepted into the program, and they have to meet certain requirements, including having a 2014 revenue between $500,000 and $20 million. If they're accepted, Google will identify three to five patent families that align with the participant's business, and the participant will be able to select two of them to keep. Participants will also be given access to a database of patents that Google has purchased from third parties, which they can use to find assets that it may be willing to sell.

Most importantly, participating in the program requires joining the LOT Network for two years. The network was launched by tech companies including Google and Dropbox and is meant to help protect members against patent trolls. The group works by requiring that members give all other members a license to any patent that they decide to transfer to a party that isn't part of the network. That allows any company in the group to be immune to threats over those patents should they end up in the hands of a patent troll. The LOT Network requires a membership fee, but participants in Google's Patent Starter Program won't have to pay it for two years.

There are a number of additional catches that come with the patents, but for the most part they're safety nets for Google. Google retains a license to any patent it gives away; participants must remain LOT Network members for two years or else lose the patents; and participants may only use the patents defensively or else be financially penalized by Google. Most of those conditions are permanent, but the companies that participate in the Starter Program appear to be free to leave the LOT Network after two years. Google's hope, apparently, is that they won't. "The bigger the network gets, the more protection the membership gets against future attacks from patent trolls," it writes. Supporting the network, it says, is "a great long-term" way to continue that fight.

Google has been one of many loud voices in Silicon Valley fighting back against patent trolls. Earlier this year, it launched a complementary initiative that made it easy for companies to sell patents to Google, so that patent holders could make some money without putting patents in the hands of trolls. The LOT Network is also part of its recent efforts. It was founded just over a year ago, and it now has 21 listed members. That includes, most recently, the Wikimedia Foundation. There aren't many small companies on the list, but Google's Patent Starter Program ought to change that.