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Google and Patents: When You Don’t Even Get Credit For Being Good

I know it’s a category mistake to feel human emotions toward a corporate entity, but I can’t help feeling sympathy for Google when I see articles like this (which come out all the time — this one just happens to be today’s example):

“A new patent could position Google as the world’s dominant identity platform” [1]

But before I start ranting, let me fact check:

Does anyone know of any instance of Google pre-emptively filing a patent infringement claim or threatening the same? That is, not as a response to an incoming patent threat, but as a first-strike move intended to monopolize a market by blocking out competitors? Responses in comments, please.

If it’s happened, I haven’t heard about it. As far as I can tell, Google collects its enormous piles of patents simply as a defensive measure: if everyone around you is armed to the teeth (and some of them, like Apple and Oracle, actually use their weapons on a regular basis), then you don’t really have a choice about whether to arm yourself. The question is just how much budget and preparedness you’re going to devote to it, as opposed to conducting your actual business.

So when I see articles like the above, saying stuff like this…

Earlier this week Google was granted [2] a US patent that could position the company as the world’s dominant identity platform with the potential to control hundreds of millions of personal identities. The implications – both beneficial and threatening – are significant.

Superficially, the concept behind the patent appears benign enough. The patented system has the ability to create different pseudonymous identities for users, meaning that users could decide who gets to see their real identity as opposed to a pseudonym, but with each identity secretly linked and thus carrying an equal degree of integrity. That means a person could establish a more flexible and trusted relationship with other users without disclosing a real world identity. …

…I wonder if I’m missing something, or if the author just hasn’t been watching the company’s actual behavior very closely.

Corporate culture matters. As far as I can tell, starting from the people at the top, Google is fundamentally uncomfortable with government-granted monopolies on technology and business methods. Maybe they just feel that using patents for supply manipulation is short-term thinking, or maybe they feel it’s wrong, but either way, I do not recall having seen Google use those monopolies to establish or maintain market dominance (again, corrections welcome). Their large patent portfolio seems to be held mainly for defenses against incoming patent threats… which is the case for many companies, and just demonstrates the insanity [3] of the system.

Meanwhile, the rapacious climate encouraged by the companies that do use their patent portfolios aggressively causes everyone to be tainted with suspicion, leading to articles like the above.

Disclaimer: I worked at Google briefly in 2006, then left amicably to pursue other ambitions. I’m still on good terms with colleagues from that time, but I have no financial interest in the company.