How Google Can Save Android from Patent Lawsuits

Android's open-source code and ready availability to manufacturers are boons to developing economies and high-tech corporations alike, from "community knowledge workers" in Uganda to companies like HTC and Samsung. Both corporations are under fire by Apple, though, which is trying (and succeeding) to ban their Android smartphones and tablets using patent law.

Meanwhile, well-funded "patent trolls" like Lodsys are going after indie Android app developers, for supposedly infringing patents they didn't even know about and can't defend themselves against. What is Google to do, as the Android world fractures around it?

Google Exec John Lagerling says that "we have very strong paths that we can take to protect the values of Android". He wasn't very specific about what those "strong paths" entail, but I have an idea that might help:

Indemnify all Android manufacturers and developers.

In a nutshell, Google should step up and take responsibility, by assuming the costs of the ongoing patent lawsuits and protecting all current and future Android device manufacturers. It should also revise the Android Market developer's agreement, so that instead of shaking down Android developers individually, a patent troll like Lodsys will have to deal with the titan itself.

A bold move? Expensive and potentially suicidal, maybe? It's not completely unprecedented: In response to Microsoft's vague patent threats a few years ago, business software vendor Red Hat indemnified all of its customers against lawsuits. The key difference, though, was that in Red Hat's case, nobody ever sued anyone. The company wasn't stepping up to bat for others, it was calling Microsoft's bluff.

Google's, and Android's, situations are far more dangerous. For all that Apple's patents may be spurious (Apple sued Nokia over the exact same patents last year), Samsung's devices really do bear an uncanny resemblance to the iPhone and iPad. And Google itself seems to have been aware from the get-go that Android would have lots of patent issues, and to have decided to go ahead anyway.

That's why Google needs to do this.

The tech titan needs to own up to what it's done. Google's right when it points out, in blog posts, the unfairness of the patent system and the way it destroys innovation. But at the same time, Google widely touts Android's open-source code and supposed openness, while keeping mum about inconvenient truths like HTC's royalty payments to Microsoft.

Should HTC have to pay Microsoft, for the privilege of using something that neither of them invented? No way. So instead of paying the patent trolls, companies like HTC and Samsung should instead be paying Google a fee for the privilege of using its closed-source, exclusive apps, like Google Maps and the Android Market. That fee could go towards the costs of a long-term assault on the broken patent system. Meanwhile, Google could increase its Android Market developer fees, and win some decisive battles against Lodsys in order to dissuade other trolls from setting up literal toll booths.

It's either that, or downplay Android's "openness" in favor of a warning label: If you write any apps or build any smartphones that use this, you will be attacked.



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