Despite its denigration of other companies’ use of patents, Google seems to be seeking and winning its own patents at a breakneck pace. It is on track to acquire 1,800 patents in 2013, placing it among the top 10 patent winners of the year. By comparison, Google applied for and won a total of four patents in 2003. This drastic increase coupled with its public policy against overuse of patents puts Google in a somewhat ambiguous position. Google, still primarily a search engine company, could be positioning itself to branch out into new arenas of innovation.
Many of the patents it is seeking relate to the Android operating system. Google and its partners who manufacture smartphones have been sued by patent holders over features of Android, thus it claims to be seeking patents solely for defensive reasons. Its top legal counsel, David Drummond, still decries the misuse of patents, likening them to a tax on smartphones, each of which can be covered by as many as 250,000 patents.
Google started its patent feeding frenzy around 2007 when Apple released the iPhone. Steve Jobs protected it with numerous patents because of intellectual property lawsuits that had been filed against Apple after the release of the iPod. Each year since 2007 Google has acquired approximately twice as many patents as the year before. Only a couple of companies now have more software patents than Google. In 2012 alone Google spent $12.5 billion to acquire Motorola Mobility and its 17,000 patents and 7,000 patent applications; it now claims to own 51,000 patents and patents pending.
Not all of their patents, however, relate to Android. Just some of the ideas in their patent treasure trove include: balloon-based networks, self-driving cars, technology that will help with indoor mapping for mobile devices, and flying wind turbines. Future patents could include medical research via its newly created subsidiary, Calico, where areas of research will likely involve anti-aging technology.
Google still claims to acquire patents only as a defensive measure to protect their research. They continue to support legislative reforms that would make it harder to win patents and even more difficult to sue based on tangential patent infringement. Nevertheless, the rapidly increasing rate of patent filings suggests that it may be falling prey to the same motivations as the rivals it has thus far so vociferously denounced. The ubiquitous search engine company could either be poised to become a durable leader in technological innovation, or just another behemoth corporation filing endless patents in a sort of legalistic cold war that simply drives up prices for the consumer.