Google buys 1,030 IBM patents, girding its loins for Android lawsuit

Google has snapped up more than a thousand IBM patents, a move that likely doubled the number of patents held by the search giant.

Many patent law experts are suggesting the move was intended to give Google a bit more leverage in its ongoing litigation around the Android operating system. Since last summer, Google has been embroiled in a legal tangle with Oracle, a terrifying mammoth in the patent department, and the IBM purchase is just one in a string of patent-buying attempts in recent months.

The company has a lot of catching up to do now that it’s waging war in Oracle’s patent-studded minefield. Google lags behind most huge enterprise tech companies when it comes to patents. With the new IBM patents, Google now holds around 2,000. Microsoft and Oracle are estimated to control around 20,000 patents each. And IBM itself still actively controls more than 26,000 patents in the U.S. and 40,000 worldwide.

“The problem for Google is that their kind of innovation is just not the one that the patent system tends to reward most generously,” patent law expert Florian Mueller told VentureBeat. “If you build online services that people like to use, it’s not necessarily due to patentable inventions.”

However, when going into battle with a company like Oracle, a stockpile of patents can be a useful thing. “Countersuits are the usual response to patent infringement lawsuits between large companies,” said Mueller, who has written extensively about the patents. “Google has definitely intensified its patent-shopping activities since Oracle’s lawsuit… It was probably very frustrating for Google not to be able to countersue Oracle.”

But Google denies any such machinations. A spokesperson from the company told VentureBeat, “Bad software patent litigation is a wasteful war that no one will win… Like many tech companies, at times we’ll acquire patents that are relevant to our business needs.”

The statement about “bad software patent litigation” sounds a bit defensive coming from a company that’s been on the unfortunate end of so many patent claims. It’s been sued for alleged (and sometimes proven) patent infringement in a range of products, including, to name but a few, Checkout, mobile/social tools, enhanced hyperlink behaviors, the use of Linux in its server platform, AdSense, mobile technologies, the Chromebook, geolocation, Google Book Search… need we continue?

Some of these suits are doubtless the evil work of patent trolls with much time and little true intellectual property of their own; however, some of the claims have been proven to be legitimate by the courts. By contrast, Google has rarely been on the offensive when it comes to patent litigation.

Whether a couple thousand patents will be useful to Google in its current spate of Android-related suits is still a largely unanswerable question. “There are dozens of Android lawsuits,” said Mueller, “and they won’t be able to make all of that litigation go away quickly… It’s difficult to predict the outcome, but should we see a settlement that’s favorable to Google, then the IBM patent deal could have played a role in it.”