Google infringes on Linux patent: $5 million judgment

Think $5 million is no big deal for Google? It isn't...it's what this judgement means that will cause some problems.

The verdict documents in the case of Bedrock Computer Technologies, LLC, vs. Google, Inc., became public yesterday, but have received remarkably little attention. While the settlement in Bedrock's favor is a mere $5 million, the case should have Google, Linux developers, and Android developers worried.

Bedrock (a company that is no longer active) sued Google over a relatively obscure patent it held on the use of linked lists with automatically expiring records. $5 million and some programmer mumbo jumbo. Big deal, right? However, as patent watcher, Florian Mueller explains, the implications of this settlement are considerable, considering that Google's counter-argument of patent invalidity were thrown out by the presiding judge:

Google failed to invalidate the patent even though a more defendant-friendly standard -- the one also advocated by Microsoft [in recent suits]-- was used than the one preferred by the US government and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC)...

More generally, this doesn't bode well for the 41 Android-related patent infringement suits that are going on at this stage. For example, if Google can't defend itself successfully against one patent held by a little non-practicing entity from Texas, what does this mean for Oracle's lawsuit over seven virtual machine patents? This shows that having deep pockets to afford the best lawyers isn't enough.

Google is obviously making money hand over foot because of Android. Not on sales or licensing of the OS, but on the ad revenue and captive audiences generated by essentially owning the OS that powers an increasingly large share of the mobile and tablet markets. This has made it a target for those looking to cash in, especially because the company has leveraged so much software (e.g., Java) with questionable patents interspersed with open sourced code.

Red Hat, Amazon, and many others were also sued by Bedrock and Red Hat also sought to have the suits dismissed due to patent invalidity; Google's case simply came to trial first, while other parties have already settled with Bedrock. It remains to be seen what ripples this judgment will have exactly, but Google, Android, and companies that are actually profiting from open source software are obviously not immune behind the protection of open source licenses.

Particularly for the companies who make substantial modifications to open source code for their purposes (not that this is a bad thing; it's the whole point of open source), those looking to cash in on buried patents need only spend time pouring over code and looking for infringements. It costs a lot less than $5 million to hire a team of programmers in India to do code review. This, I'm afraid, is just the beginning and stands to do a fair amount of harm to industry momentum and to the private companies that provide vast incentive for the advancement of open source software.

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