Apple Does Right By Its Developers. Will Google?

Last Updated May 24, 2011 4:12 PM EDT

When patent troll "non practicing entity" Lodsys took aim at some third-party iOS app companies, a lot of people in high tech got concerned. Patent litigation over smartphones and other mobile devices has become a game for wealthy corporations. And yet, small companies that make apps help create and sustain the market. What would happen if they started to walk away?

In this case, Apple (AAPL) stepped between Lodsys and developers, waving its own license to the technology in question and claiming that it covers the iOS platform developers. Whether or not a court would agree with the claim, Apple did both the right and smart thing. Now the question is whether Google (GOOG) will get a clue and similarly start to protect its business partners, because the alternative could be more dangerous to the company's strategy than any competitor.

The action by Lodsys is not the first time that a patent holder has gone after app developers for alleged infringement. In March, a troll targeted third-party app developers. However, the developer plaintiffs were the likes of Amazon (AMZN), Kayak, eBay, and Buy.com -- generally large companies with resources to fight or settle a suit.

Apple stands up for the little guys
Lodsys still hasn't actually filed a suit. But it sent cease-and-desist letters to a number of smaller iOS app developers, threatening suit over use of a button that allows a consumer to buy the full version of an app. There's a startlingly inventive use of software, eh?

After some of the developers contacted Apple, the company's general counsel, Bruce Sewell, sent a letter to Lodsys stating that "Apple is undisputedly licensed to these patents and the App Makers are protected by that license."

Would a judge agree? Hard to say, though there's something solid in the argument. After all, Apple owns and runs the fulfillment system. An app essentially files a request with the app store to fulfill a purchase. In that sense, Apple, which is already a license holder, performs the upgrade function, not the app or its developer.

It's a reasonable move for Apple, particularly as the company is a license holder. Why let the app ecosystem potentially feel damage, which could seriously hurt the company? The move also sends all the right signals. It tells developers that no matter what beefs they've had with Apple, the company won't let hang them out to dry, whether that is actually true or not.

Meanwhile, in the Plex...
Contrast that demonstration with how Google undertakes business with Android, which has become a magnet for legal threats. Eventually, partners don't want any more hassle and they find something else to do with their time. Only Google could eventually find itself abandoned by hardware manufacturers as well as the app developers.

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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.