Google can't have it both ways on intellectual property

Google, by all accounts, is seen as a great American success story. From its roots as a part-time project of two Stanford students to its present-day standing as one of the titans of the Internet, Google has projected itself as the epitome of ingenuity and the ultimate embodiment of the startup mentality.

In recent years, however, the cracks in this feel-good story have begun to show, as Google quickly moves away from its entrepreneurial past and shifts its focus to the halls of Washington, where the corporation has parlayed its cozy relationship with the White House into a troublesome level of political clout.

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Google’s most recent quarterly report to shareholders was a not only an impressive recounting of the corporation’s financial success and plans for the future, but also a fascinating window into its executives’ mindset toward the threats they see looming on the horizon. One of the recurring themes in this quarter’s report was intellectual property policy, an intersection of law, politics, and technology with which Google has a complicated, and often conflicting, relationship.

“Regardless of the merits,” Google acknowledges that the myriad of IP lawsuits it has faced--including one from the Association of American Publishers over Google Books and one from TiVo over its “Time Warp” patent--have “had an effect on our business.” Yet as Google seeks to quickly dismiss these lawsuits--even while acknowledging the validity of some IP claims--it is also taking aggressive steps to protect its own intellectual assets against perceived threats.

The quarterly report frets over the possibility that rights to the term “Google” may be lost as it enters the vernacular as a synonym for “search,” and the corporation’s attorneys aggressively file patents for everything from the ubiquitous heart-shaped hand gesture to the new “Hummingbird” algorithm that ranked pages. In fact, White House IP policy advisor Colleen Chien--formerly a top Silicon Valley lawyer--recently noted that Google now spends more on patents than research and development.

The duality of these simultaneous practices--vigorously pursuing patents while curtly dismissing and countering legitimate claims from competitors who seek to do the same--suggests that Google wants it it both ways on IP protections.

Google’s increasingly potent alliance with the Obama administration has paralleled its growing corporate focus on its own intellectual property rights. Like all businesses, Google has a financial interest in securing patents and guaranteeing its rights to profit off its creations, yet the search giant doesn’t seem to play by the same rules as everyone else. When Google sees something it wants, the intellectual property rights of others are often trumped by a battalion of corporate lawyers.

More so than perhaps any other corporation, Google has the ability to manipulate the intricate legal and political web of intellectual property law in its favor, and seems to be using it to attempt to reshape federal IP law and policy to suit its own needs--or at least the needs it has at the moment.

While its competition plays by the rules, Google is playing a game all its own. Although programmers and wiz kids are still central to Google’s mission, its heart has shifted from Silicon Valley to K Street, and its double standard on IP protections is harming the industry it’s helped cultivate.

Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.