Calling All Inventors: Google Wants to Buy Your Patents

Robert Scoble under Creative Commons

Invented something awesome? Got a patent on it? Sell it to Google.

It’s really happening. Google just announced the Patent Purchase Promotion, an “experimental marketplace” for patent owners to sell out to Google.

Google explained in a blog post that enforcing the patent on a product you invented can be very expensive. Patent holding companies can fight the good fight for you, but often those companies are really “patent trolls” who leech money from inventors but do little to protect a patent on behalf of the original patent-holder.

So Google’s playing Robin Hood, hoping to keep patents away from the trolls by buying them up itself.

The Patent Purchase Portal

Google will run its Patent Purchase Promotion from May 8-22, 2015. “We’ll open a streamlined portal for patent holders to tell Google about patents they’re willing to sell at a price they set,” writes Allen Lo, Google’s deputy general counsel for patents.

Patent holders will enter the necessary information online, and Google will get in touch with patent holders they want to do business with. They plan to notify good matches by the end of June and pay out successful transactions by late August.

Google admits in its program FAQ that it doesn’t know how much money it will spend buying up others’ patents, saying, “It will really be a function of how much interest we receive and the type of patents that are submitted.” There’s no set number of patents the company will buy, either.

This experiment is limited to U.S. patents, and Google strongly advises applicants to communicate with a lawyer before and throughout the process.

What’s Google Going to Do With All Your Patents?

Google plans to use your patent the same way you would use it yourself. Patents are frequently licensed out to those who want to improve an invention or replicate the specific function you own.

If Google buys your patent, the company will do all that for you. Google has already gathered a collection of patents to license out at its leisure. But if you sell your patent to Google, you’ll still get to work on your invention. “Sellers will retain a license back to their patent,” Google specifies.

Here’s the fine print: You’ll keep your own license, but you won’t be able to sell any licenses to make money on your patent. If you sell to Google, licensing becomes its quest, and it alone will reap the benefits.

Are Patent Trolls Really That Scary?

Many patent holders will tell you patent trolls are a major threat to their businesses. And it’s not just the little guys working out of their garages who are at risk; major companies can be the victims of trolls, too.

TV manufacturer Vizio has beaten 18 patent trolls, all of them companies that make no real products but buy patents and file patent lawsuits hoping to make a buck. Defending a suit against your patent can cost a million dollars on the low end.

One recent study revealed that 67% of all new patent lawsuits come from these non-producing trolls.

But when a major company defends a suit by a patent troll, it doesn’t win any money to make up for its trouble and expenses. Last year, the Supreme Court published two patent case opinions that could make it easier for companies to collect from trolls who file outlandish, uncalled-for patent suits.

Is Google Doing a Good Thing?

Fighting patent trolls isn’t suddenly a new project for Google. Last summer, it partnered with a handful of other tech companies to launch the License on Transfer (LOT) Network, which seeks to reduce the risk of defending suits filed by patent trolls. Together with partners like Newegg, Dropbox and Canon, the LOT Network protects about 300,000 patents. Businesses can apply to join the network, with annual membership fees of up to $20,000.

But Google’s war against trolls doesn’t mean its efforts aren’t self-serving.

“The program seems like a good way for Google to find out what patents are on the market today, including which ones it may need to worry about,” said Sarah Perez of TechCrunch. “And it’s able to do so without transactional costs associated with doing so because it will likely get flooded with submissions.”

Annalee Newitz from Gizmodo is even less impressed with Google’s plan. “Basically this is another one of Google’s good-guy strategies that rests on the ‘just trust us’ principle,” she writes. “It’s true that Google has no history of being a patent troll. But stockpiling patents is not a smart way to stay on that path.” From her view, the patent program seems like an effort to compete with patent trolls, rather than crush them.

Your Turn: If you own a patent, will you consider selling it to Google? How much would you want to sell it for?

Lisa Rowan is a writer, shop owner, and podcaster living in Washington, D.C.