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Google Android: the IP Litigator's Full Employment Act

Google's (GOOG) Android operating system has a massive commercial weakness: its susceptibility to copyright and patent infringement lawsuits. Earlier this week, Microsoft (MSFT) filed two lawsuits against Barnes & Noble (BKS) and its contract manufacturers over the Nook e-reader's use of Android.

Those suits join literally dozens of others, including Microsoft's action against Motorola (MMI) and Oracle's (ORCL) suit against Google over Android's Java implementation. Seen one at a time, these may seem trivial. But collected into a single picture (literally, below, by IP blogger Florian Mueller) and you see how Google and its hardware partners increasingly find themselves painted into a corner (click to enlarge to see the details):

By Mueller's count, Google or one of its partners is the defendant in 37 different Android-related lawsuits, all within the last 12 months. This is an astounding number. This is probably due to three factors:

  • Android is a successful platform from a wealthy company, a combination that makes potential litigants see dollar signs before their eyes.
  • Google has been cavalier with the intellectual property of others, as is clear from the number of times copyright owners have successfully sued the company for using material without permission. (Yesterday, for example, a federal judge tossed the settlement in a class action suit brought against Google by publishers and authors over the company's scanning of copyrighted books.)
  • Although Google has some interesting patents, it has failed to build a portfolio sufficient to go head-to-head with others in the mobile industry.
What should trouble Google management is the danger the company continues to put itself into through its intellectual property strategies. Lawsuits that directly target the company are bad enough. Of course, Google has money for lawyers, but lawsuits require management attention and time for depositions, and they generally disrupt a company's operations.

More important, Google's hardware business partners have become high-profile targets by such competitors as Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft. The reason is clear: scare off the hardware vendors and you neutralize Google's ability to bring Android to market. That would suit both Apple and Microsoft well. Google's mobile IP weakness could dethrone the market leader, one way or another, within the next few years.


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