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Google Loses a Patent Suit -- and So Do Linux and Android

Google (GOOG) lost a patent infringement suit brought by Bedrock Computer Technologies to the tune of $5 million. The amount of money is chicken feed to the search giant, but the implications go much further, because the suit has major implications for using Linux. And if you're Google or any of its hardware partners, you won't like what it says, by extension, about Android.

Bedrock had filed suit in 2009 for infringement of patent number 5,893,120, Methods and apparatus for information storage and retrieval using a hashing technique with external chaining and on-the-fly removal of expired data. According to research by patent blogger Florian Mueller, the jury found Google to infringe the first two claims of the patent, which describes a computer system that can go through a list of records, some which automatically "expire," and then identify and remove those expired records from the list.

Yup, dry as dust, but the issue is that Bedrock claimed that the Linux kernel itself infringed the claims, according to Mueller. It just happens that Google has huge server farms that run on Linux. Suddenly, a technology that has become a basic tool for IT departments is vulnerable to patent attacks.

Mueller noted that Bedrock had named a number of other defendants in the suit, including:

  • Yahoo (YHOO)
  • MySpace (NWS)
  • PayPal (EBAY)
  • AOL
Linux vendor Red Hat, a potential target for such a suit, brought action itself in the same Texas district as Bedrock had used, trying to get a court to declare the patent invalid and unenforceable. However, Google didn't get anywhere with such attempts, so it's unlikely that Red Hat will have any more luck.

Google can certainly try to appeal -- and, apparently, it may already plan to do so. But unless it can do so successfully, the ruling is a potential problem for any company that wants to use Linux.

The issue goes well beyond a corporate data center. Android is based on Linux. Does that mean a future rollicking round of lawsuits against all hardware vendors that make Android-based handsets and tablets? (Motorola (MMI) is nervous already.) Linux is at the base of many devices, including many non-Android handsets. Such a decision could start a list of copycat actions. How many potential law suits does it take to make a free operating system too expensive to use?

As for Google, as Mueller points out, if it can't hold out against a small patent troll, what hope will it have against the Oracle (ORCL) suit over Google's use of Java?

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