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Four Myths About Suing Google

When you're a $169 billion company, fatuous lawsuits come with the territory. But the latest round of suits are proof of the ever-growing complexity of what, exactly, it is that Google does.

For a company that has relied heavily on a robust word-of-mouth marketing machine, acquiring a reputation for over-complication could be a troubling obstacle indeed. But then again, who says there's any correlation between reality and the claims that lawyers make during litigation?

With that in mind, here are a few myths about Google's business, as demonstrated by recent lawsuits:

Myth#1: Google makes money just off good ideas. A recent lawsuit by a Texas man alleges that Google stole the idea for its AdSense program -- which constitutes a nice slice of the search giant's $24 billion gross revenuea -- from a project he started in his junior college programming class. Granted, there's no evidence that Google ever saw his program, and he never actually finished the project, but that hasn't stopped him from claiming he's entitled to $600 million in damages. More important is the apparent justification for the suit: that Google's mondo profits are a result of nifty ideas, not its implementation and engineering.

As the fastitious law reporter Joe Mullion notes on his blog, this is one of almost 50 IP-related lawsuits brought since 2007 by companies that don't actually make anything -- otherwise known as "patent trolls." Google refused to settle; when the case went to a jury, Google won.

Myth #2: Google shares files. Carol Kaye is a professional bassist who has played with the likes of Simon & Garfunkel and Quincy Jones. Unfortunately her technical talent in music hasn''t carried over to the digital realm, and she has confusedly lobbed accusations and lawsuits at a variety of outlets that don't have anything at all to do with illegal file sharing. This isn't a lawsuit, but it's close enough: Kaye posted on her website that she has filed a complaint with the FTC over Google's abetting of illegal piracy. She says:

Please do not download any of my books/CDs from Google. I filed FTC Complaint #25172648 against Google for those illegal downloads, don't be a pirate!
Kaye and her fans have also been sending harassing emails to the blog TorrentFreak, which she mistakenly thinks is enabling illegal distribution of her recordings and sheet music.

Myth #3: Google is responsible for all its users' content. In 2006, a group of Italian kids mocked a handicapped classmate, recorded it on video, and uploaded the clip to YouTube. Users flagged the video as inappropriate, and Google pulled the video within hours. End of story? Not nearly. This week, a judge in Milan subsequently convicted three Google executives of violating Italian privacy law, and sentenced them to six-month "suspended" sentences in jail, which they won't have to serve.

As InfoWeek notes, the salient thing about the Milan ruling is that the Google executives were tried as individuals who were to be held responsible for corporate action. Citing a comment from privacy lawyer Lisa Sotto of Hunton & Williams, the site also suggests the ruling might have been "in part... politically motivated by general resentment of Google's power and success." Google has nearly 90% search market-share in Europe, as compared to 65% in the U.S.

Myth #4 Google is responsible for all the ills of the Internet. Whether or not you think that Google Buzz was an invasion of your privacy, you might still agree that Google is not to blame for all the evils of social networking. Eva Hibnick, a Harvard Law student, disagrees. Hibick has signed on as lead plaintiff in a class action suit against Google over Buzz's alleged privacy violations. Asked why, she told the Harvard Crimson: "The social networking industry is going too far."

Hibnick and another student were encouraged to file suit by one of their professors, who seems equally content to drop all the ills of the Internet on Google's doorstep. He told the Crimson: "[T]his... reflects the fact that these social networking sites are a concern of the student generation." He added: "The most important thing about this case to me is the initiative my students have shown."

Confused lawsuits are more often shot down than not, and Google has a strict no-settle policy when it feels claims are without merit. But IP-related suits are voluminous enough that they could become a problem for the search company. Google has also been a vocal proponent of patent reform; since 2006, its lobbying spending has quadrupled to $4 million per annum.

It's easy (and perhaps appropriately cynical) to assume that the company, like many, is looking to remake the US Patent and Trademark Office in its own convenient image. But as the Google's Head of Patents and Patent Strategy Michelle Lee points out on the company's public policy blog, there is a virtual cottage industry of Google lawsuits springing up from ever more dubious circumstances. Not only are many suits brought by the aforementioned "patent trolls," she says, but many of the "companies" bringing the allegations are owned by the very patent attorneys filing the suits. Google patent profiteering is taking off.

Recent efforts to reform the patent system like the Patent Reform Act have died in the Senate as recently as last spring, but well-funded groups like the Coalition for Patent Fairness (of which Google is a member) seem committed to pressing the issue. Then again, perhaps Google's high legal profile can't be helped when it's branching out to everything from cell phones to broadband to energy.