Microsoft to Barnes & Noble: Android's Free -- After You Pay Us

Last Updated Mar 21, 2011 8:13 PM EDT

Microsoft (MSFT) filed suit against Barnes & Noble (BKS), as well as two Asian contract manufacturers, over the Android-based Nook e-reader. It's the continuation of a competitive strategy that uses patents to target one of the company's biggest competitors: Google (GOOG).

Microsoft has done badly in the race for the hearts, minds and wallets of mobile consumers -- Windows Phone trails far in the distance behind Apple (AAPL) and Google smartphones and tablets. But you can't say that Microsoft isn't inventive. It also sits on a mountain of patents that help it twist arms when necessary. Given how careless Google may have been with intellectual property and the development of Android, Microsoft's tactic could conceivably do some damage to one of its major competitors.

If you can't win in the market, wheel out the lawyers
Microsoft filed separate actions both in district court and at the International Trade Commission, a typical tactic. If the company wins in court, it can get damages and force Barnes & Noble to pay licensing fees. If Microsoft wins at the ITC, it could actually block entrance of the devices that the book retailer has made overseas.

The asserted patents cover aspects of a range of technologies, including tabbing through screens to find information, Web surfing, and interacting with electronic documents. Only five patents appear in the district court suit, but as Florian Mueller noted, Microsoft asserted 23 patents against Motorola last October. There is certainly the possibility that the five patents mentioned are potentially only the beginning.

Of course, it's not as though Microsoft is alone in this gambit. In October, when the company sued Motorola, it did so on the heels of Apple suing HTC for alleged patent infringement. Oracle sued Google for allegedly infringing Java-related patents and copyrights.

Google has been freewheeling in its approach to intellectual property in the past, which has landed it in court with European newspaper publishers as well as with American book publishers and authors. High tech companies often opt to ask forgiveness after the fact rather than permission, which risks being told no. But the number of legal openings that Google has left its competitors looks more like sloppiness.

The big question for Google is whether its hardware partners in Android will soon reach a point at which they'll tire of paying lawyers and penalties, much less risking a legal situation that could put product plans into jeopardy.

They don't exactly lack for other options: Microsoft is there with various forms of Windows. Research in Motion (RIM) owns QNX, which will power that company's tablet entry. There are other choices, as well, such as HP's (HPQ) webOS and even Symbian. Android adoption has raced ahead, but as the legal pressure mounts, Google could hand its lead to a rival more willing to indemnify its partners from lawsuits.

Related: Image: morgueFile user southernfried, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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