Google sues to protect Android device makers from Apple-backed patent hell

Update: This article produced a torrent of abuse, accusations and even some insight from commenters, John Gruber and others. I’ve responded further below.

Google(s goog) has filed a new lawsuit to challenge an Apple-backed consortium known as Rockstar that is using dubious patents to threaten its partners and customers in the mobile device industry.

In a complaint filed Monday in San Jose, Google claims that Rockstar’s patent campaign is taking aim at hundreds of California tech companies and that the litigation has “placed a cloud on Google’s Android platform,” threatening Nexus devices in particular.

The lawsuit amounts to an effort to shield ASUS and other companies that use the open source Android operating system from a legal extermination effort by Rockstar, which filed a wave of lawsuits in late October:

Among the myriad companies ensnared in Rockstar’s patent dragnet are customers and partners of Google who use the Android platform in their devices, including ASUS, HTC, Huawei, LG, Pantech, Samsung, and ZTE.

Despite its cocky name, Rockstar is simply a corporate patent troll hatched by Google rivals — including Apple(s aapl), Microsoft(s msft) and BlackBerry(s rim) — after the rivals spent $4.5 billion ($2.5 billion from Apple) in 2012 for a trove of patents from Nortel, a long defunct Canadian telco company. Today, Rockstar employs once-proud Canadian engineers to help with the trolling operation. The filing says:

Rockstar produces no products and practices no patents. Instead, Rockstar employs a staff of engineers in Ontario, Canada, who examine other companies’ successful products to find anything that Rockstar might use to demand and extract licenses to its patents under threat of litigation.

The complaint also states that Rockstar’s trolling campaign has targeted more than 100 companies, and that Rockstar’s CEO has said that Facebook(s fb), LinkedIn(s lnkd) and every other tech company is infringing the old Nortel patents.

Such claims may seem absurd, and could speed calls to reform a dysfunctional patent system, but they also present a very real business problem for Android makers since the lawsuits mean an ongoing risk of injunctions and unpredictable jury verdicts.

Google appears to be especially concerned about the Nexus line of phones. It asks the court to declare that “the Nexus 5, Nexus 7, or Nexus 10 devices sold by Google directly or indirectly” don’t infringe seven patents that belong to Rockstar or to “MobileStar, ” another shell company that “was formed for litigation one day before Rockstar filed its lawsuits against Google’s customers.”

As for the patents, they relate to basic functions like “mobile hotspot functionality,”  “VPN management functionality” and “Messaging and Notification.”

It’s unclear, however, how far Google will get with its attempt to get a declaration that the patents don’t infringe.

In April, America’s patent appeals court ruled Cisco(s csco) couldn’t sue to protect its customers from patent infringements suits targeting customers that used its routers. This could create procedural obstacles in Google’s attempt to put brakes on the sprawling Android litigation.

Meanwhile, Rockstar has also expanded its troll campaign with new lawsuits against Cisco and the cable industry earlier this month. Such tactics may suggest that the troll company may be getting anxious about how to recoup the $4.5 billion its owners spent to create it.

This week, Bloomberg cited Rockstar sources who said the troll has had “little success in landing large licensing deals,” and that some of its patents are now up for sale — suggesting that companies are resisting Rockstar’s demands for protection money.

More broadly, a modicum of sanity may return to the patent system next year as the Supreme Court has announced it will review whether software patents should be eligible in the first place, and as Congress pushes forward with a law to rein in patent trolls.

Google’s complaint with some of the relevant bits underlined is below.

Update: here’s a crude annotation of some of the comments below, and my responses:

“Hey, Jeff, you’ve obviously been bought off by Google.”

A: This isn’t FOSSPatents. I don’t accept money, favors or anything else from the companies I write about and neither do any of my colleagues at Gigaom. We wouldn’t have any credibility if we did.

“This article is biased against Apple”

A: Yes, it is biased. It’s biased against grubby business tactics and, especially, against America’s broken patent system. Apple is not the worst offender; however, it’s a shame that Apple has succumbed to patent privateering and related tactics that are the hallmark of Microsoft and other companies whose innovative years are in the rear view mirror.

The Rockstar litigation will lead to a fortune in research dollars getting diverted to lawyers, waste-of-time depositions and parasitic patent exchanges.

“Google does the same thing”

A: Yes, Google bid on the Nortel patents and filed lawsuits based on the Motorola portfolio it acquired. But these acts were defensive tactics in response to the effort of Microsoft and others to game the broken patent system.

And unlike Apple, Google is promoting a saner patent system by donating intellectual property to create a litigation-free space for cloud developers. Companies like Twitter and RackSpace are also shaking up the status quo. Apple, on the other hand, is embracing IP maximalism that will help it in the short term but damage the innovation eco-system in the long-run. Google may turn into a patent troll one day, but for now it has resisted the impulse.

“But Apple invented the iPhone and Google stole it”

A: I don’t have an opinion on that. It’s a question for the gadget geeks. But for the purposes of this story — which is about Nortel patents — it’s irrelevant. The patent system is supposed to promote innovation; carving up the long dead carcass of Nortel to feed the lawyers doesn’t do this.

“Jeff, you’re a crank who doesn’t understand the patent system”

A: Maybe. But I’m not the only one. The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York TimesArs Technica and the scholarly community are shrieking out for reform too.

Google Dec Action vs Rockstar

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