Does the US patent system work? Microsoft points at Android for proof it does

united states patent office

The United States’ patent system — and, indeed, patent systems around the world — have been sharply criticized for years, particularly in the software arena. Patents are intended to give inventors exclusive rights to technology they develop, in exchange for public disclosure. With a patent, inventors can prevent anyone from selling, manufacturing, distributing, or using their invention without permission, yet the broader industry benefits from knowledge of the technology and, potentially, the ability to license it from the inventor. Although terms vary around the world, patent exclusivity usually lasts at least 20 years. That’s less than a copyright, but long enough for inventors to realize significant commercial gains from their innovations.

Right now, patents are a very hot topic in mobile technology. Major companies like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Google, Oracle, HTC, Kodak, RIM, and many more — as well as non-practicing entities (a.k.a. patent trolls) — are at each other’s throats in patent infringement cases. What’s more, the companies are scrambling to acquire still more patents to solidify their negotiating positions. Ten or hundreds of billions of dollars — and potentially the future of many mobile platforms — hang in the balance.

Google has famously claimed “bogus” patents are being used to attack its Android operating system. Now, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle (here and here) Microsoft’s deputy counsel for intellectual property Horatio Gutiérrez argues assertions of those same patent claims are actually proof the system is working.

Is either company right, and can anything be done to prevent abuses of the patent system?

horatio GutiérrezMicrosoft’s stance

Microsoft has made no bones about pursuing patent licensing deals with device makers building Android equipment. The company recently inked its tenth Android licensing deal and has sued Barnes & Noble claiming its Android devices violate Microsoft patents. The net result? Microsoft is earning money from sales of a growing pool of Android devices, including devices from the likes of HTC, and told the Chronicle. “In doing that, they have really stood on the shoulder of companies like Microsoft who made all these billions of dollars in investments.”

Microsoft argues many of those features are critical to these device’s operating systems and functionality—such as the ability to synchronize content with cloud-based systems, business services, and home computers. However, Gutiérrez also notes that seemingly innocuous things add up: one patent at issue in Microsoft’s suit against Barnes & Noble involves graphics that appear during Web page loads. While such a feature might seem minor or unworthy of patent protection, Gutiérrez argues they’re an important part of a device’s experience. “Those patents [cover] individual features that have been created in a particularly inventive way by Microsoft.”

Gutiérrez fully acknowledges that patents cover methods for achieving things, not the final outcome of the innovation or even the idea itself. Gutiérrez also openly notes that different inventors can come up with different ways of achieving the same goal, and each method could be independently patentable. In other words, Microsoft isn’t claiming its patents cover all methods of synchronizing mobile devices with servers, computers, or services: just particular ones. In its opinion, several of those methods are included in Android.

“Licensing is not some nefarious thing that people should be worried about,” Gutiérrez said. “Licensing is, in fact, the solution to the patent problem that people are reacting so negatively about.”

android-raceGoogle’s stance

Not surprisingly, Google sees Microsoft’s position differently. “Patents were meant to encourage innovation, but lately they are being used as a weapon to stop it,” wrote Google’s’s chief legal officer David Drummond in an now-infamous screed this August. Drummond accused companies like Oracle, Apple, and Microsoft of attacking Android using both their own patents along with those acquired through purchases in an effort to curtail Android’s market momentum, raise the ultimate cost of Android devices for consumers — or, at the very least, participate in Android’s growing revenue stream. “Instead of competing by building new features or devices, they are fighting through litigation,” Drummond wrote.

Drummond acknowledges that a smartphone might involve as many as a quarter million patent claims, and asserts the majority are “questionable.” Curiously, Drummond never says Android doesn’t violate patents, but he does imply any patent violations are inconsequential or related to “bogus,” “old,” or “questionable” patents that ought not to have any bearing on Android and Google’s efforts to innovate.

Product Review

The HP Chromebook x2 takes Chrome to the next level

HP’s Chromebook x2 acts a lot like Microsoft’s Surface Book 2, with a well-equipped tablet that plugs into a keyboard base that’s heavy enough to keep the combination mostly stable. Is this premium Chromebook the best one you can buy?

These are the best Xbox One games out right now

More than four years into its lifespan, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From 'Cuphead' to 'Halo 5,' the best Xbox One games offer something for everyone.
Smart Home

Amazon Prime Now: Here's exactly what it can do for you

Amazon Prime Now offers delivery of your purchased goods in just two hours. That means you get the convenience of online shopping coupled with the instant gratification of in-store purchases.

Microsoft could debut transparent Surface Dial sequel at October event

Microsoft's upcoming October Surface event could show off more than just laptops. A new FCC filing suggests Microsoft may also debut a new Surface Dial device, potentially with a transparent center.

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…

Fitbit’s new health care platform sets out to improve wellness in the workplace

Fitbit's new platform, Fitbit Care, aims to help improve wellness in the workplace. Using wearables, digital health coaching, and a more personalized health care experience, employees can have an easier time staying on top of their health.

Samsung looks to Huawei for inspiration, and the new Galaxy A7 is born

Samsung has launched the Galaxy A7 smartphone, its first with a triple-lens rear camera, which, although sounds similar to the one fitted to the Huawei P20 Pro, works in a different way.

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro's body may wirelessly charge new Bluetooth headphones

Huawei is no stranger when it comes to big phones. And this year it plans to go even bigger with the Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro. Here's what we think we know about the new range.

Here's the Samsung Galaxy S9's new Android 9.0 Pie interface

The Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus are here. The flagship devices boast some awesome new features and a powerful new processor. Here's everything you need to know about these Samsung phones.

Our favorite tips and tricks to help you master your Samsung Galaxy Tab S4

Apple's not the only game in town when it comes to productivity tablets. Samsung's Galaxy Tab S4 has all the features you'll need to get work done. Here are a few of our favorite tips and tricks for the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4.

Huawei is not-so-subtly trolling Friday’s iPhone launch

Apple launches the iPhone XS range to the public on Friday, but Huawei is out in force to remind the public what they could be missing out on (Hint: It's the Mate 20 Pro) by choosing Apple's latest smartphone.

Audio company Bragi is suing OnePlus over the word 'dash'

Despite taking steps to change to "Warp Charge," OnePlus is being sued by audio company Bragi over the phone manufacturer's continued use of the word "dash" in the Dash Charging used in OnePlus phones.

The best weather apps for Android will keep you dry no matter where you go

You may not be able to change the weather, but you can at least be prepared for it. Check out our guide to the best weather apps for Android, so you'll always know what to expect when you step out the front door.

Android 9.0 Pie is finally rolling out to the OnePlus 6

Android 9.0 Pie has been released. But is your phone getting Android 9.0 Pie, and if so, when? We've done the hard work and asked every device manufacturer to see when their devices would be getting the update.
1 of 2