Google Buys IBM Patents, Boosting IP Portfolio

Google earlier this month purchased more than 1,000 patents from IBM, covering a broad array of technologies.

The 1,030 patents address server and router architectures, chip fabrication, and search technologies. The purchases were recorded around mid-July and were first described in a blog post by SEO by the Sea. Media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg received confirmations of the deal from Google.

The deal follows Google's failed bid for more than 6,000 Nortel patents earlier this month. A coalition consisting of Apple, Microsoft, EMC, Ericsson, RIM and Sony paid a total of $4.5 billion for those patents. Apple contributed the most, gaining the lion's share of those Nortel patents.

Google provided no reason why it bought the IBM patents, but observers have noted that Google's patent portfolio has tended to be on the thin side, leaving it little legal maneuvering room against potential intellectual property (IP) lawsuits. Florian Müller, an IP analyst and blogger based in Starnsberg, Germany, noted in a blog post that Google likely had around 700 granted patents leading up to the IBM patents sale.

Google so far has provided no apparent legal indemnity for the Android mobile operating system, which it helped develop. Android, based on open source Linux OS, has been a frequent target of IP legal attacks. HTC and Microsoft agreed to a patent royalty deal over Android use rather than resort to the courts. Motorola and Barnes & Noble, which also use Android in mobile devices, have taken to defending their positions in the courts against Microsoft's IP legal claims. Apple may be an even bigger litigant over Android IP claims than Microsoft.

Oracle is also contesting Android use, suing Google directly over the use of Java IP associated with Android. Oracle constitutes a tough IP foe, as it holds more than 20,000 granted patents, Müller noted.

Possibly, Google's purchase of IBM's patents will give Google a better legal defensive posture in such direct lawsuits. However, hardware vendors using Android might still be left with little indemnity, according to Müller.

"This is difficult to assess from the outside, but my feeling is that this deal can help Google to defend itself against other patent holders if it's sued directly," Müller postulated in the blog post. "It can serve to deter some companies from suing Google directly. But it's hard to imagine that this deal puts Google into such an incredibly powerful position that it can give an intellectual property guarantee (including indemnification) to its device makers."

Meanwhile, Google may be facing potential IP legal disputes on another front. A group called MPEG LA has sent signals that it may contest IP associated with Google's WebM project. The project promotes an open source video codec for royalty-free use in Web sites and software media players. It's based on VP8 video codec technologies that Google acquired from On2 Technologies.

MPEG LA indicated this week that 12 of its member agreed that VP8 infringes their patents, according to statements given to That decision follows a meeting set up to decide the matter in February. MPEG LA members include companies such as Apple, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Microsoft, among others.

Google is currently forming a WebM Community Cross-License initiative, aimed at defending VP8. Under this initiative, members agree to cross-license IP that may be associated with WebM at no charge to other members.

In March, it was reported that the U.S. Department of Justice and the California State Attorney General's office were investigating whether MPEG LA was thwarting competition, specifically with regard to the VP8 codec. It appears nothing has surfaced yet from that investigation.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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