Tech Industry

Google: Time to ditch our current software patent system?

Google's public policy director says at an Aspen conference that "these patent wars are not helpful to consumers."

Pablo Chavez, Google's public policy director, says at an Aspen conference today, referring to patent wars: "They're not helpful to the marketplace. They're not helpful to innovation."
Declan McCullagh/CNET

ASPEN, Colo. -- Google suggested today that it might be time for the U.S. to ditch software patents.

"One thing that we are very seriously taking a look at is the question of software patents, and whether in fact the patent system as it currently exists is the right system to incent innovation and really promote consumer-friendly policies," said Pablo Chavez, Google's public policy director.

Chavez's remarks at the Technology Policy Institute's conference here this morning come as the Mountain View, Calif. company is enmeshed in a series of legal actions involving software patents, including Oracle (which Google won at trial) and Apple (which is still pending).

Software patents have become increasingly controversial in technology circles, in part because of the rise of what are derisively called "patent trolls," and in part because of the mixed quality of the patents that the U.S. government has granted. In April, Twitter announced a kind of Hippocratic Oath for tech companies, saying its patents would only be used for defensive purposes -- not to block rivals from innovating.

"We think that these patent wars are not helpful to consumers," Chavez said in response to a question from Rick Lane, News Corp.'s senior vice president of government affairs. "They're not helpful to the marketplace. They're not helpful to innovation."

Google has criticized software patents before. Last summer, it said they were "gumming up the works of innovation." And a 2009 brief (PDF) before the U.S. Supreme Court signed by Google, Metlife, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and others said:

The recent surge in patents on abstract ideas such as how to run a business or software that merely implements such methods has not promoted innovation in the financial services or information technology fields -- to the contrary, such patents create a drag on innovation.

Chavez said that software patents can be differentiated from patents in areas such as medicine. There are a "lot of structural differences between that industry and the software industry," he said. "With that in mind, we are starting to brainstorm longer-term solutions."

Lane, the News Corp. executive, had accused Google of acting anti-competitively by having its Motorola subsidiary bring a counter-action against Apple last week that could imperil imports of iOS devices. (News Corp. blames Google for doing more than any other company to derail the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, early this year.)

"If we tried to do that as a content community, all heck would break loose," Lane said, referring to the patent action. "We'd be accused of stifling innovation protecting old business models. What about all the investments that have been made in iPad apps?"

Disclosure: McCullagh is married to a Google employee.