Google has more than 700 patents, mostly for search engine technology. Most of its competitors, particularly in the mobile industry, lay claim to thousands. “Patents are instruments of war. Companies are acquiring patents to both defend their market share and to countersue competitors,” Poltorak said.
Google’s Android mobile device software has increasingly been targeted in legal complaints. A relative newcomer to the mobile industry, Google is competing against established players with large intellectual property arsenals, Poltorak said. The first Android phones went on the market in 2008. Today Android is the most widely used mobile software for smartphones, with nearly 40% of the global market, according to research firm IDC.
“Google neglected patents for many years because it did not realize that they were essential business tools. It can no longer neglect them,” Poltorak said.
In an effort to insulate itself, Google has rolled out an ambitious program to buy up patents. It bid for patents from bankrupt phone equipment maker Nortel Networks in April but was outmaneuvered by rivals, including Apple, Microsoft and Research in Motion, that make devices that compete with Android.
Google has also launched a campaign to curb patent litigation. Google has called on Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to rein in patent infringement lawsuits. It also has asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to review patents being used in litigation.
Its general counsel Kent Walker has argued that patent infringement litigation stifles innovation and harms consumers. Google makes its open-source Android software available for free. Developers can modify the software, making the company vulnerable to allegations that it taps research and development from other companies.
“Like many tech companies, at times we’ll acquire patents that are relevant to our business needs,” a Google spokesman said in an emailed statement. “Bad software patent litigation is a wasteful war that no one will win.”
He would not comment on the purchase price of the IBM patents.
Chris Andrews, an IBM spokesman, declined to comment.
Google faces a high-stakes courtroom showdown with Oracle set to begin in October. Oracle alleges that Google’s Android mobile device software infringes Oracle’s Java patents, which it picked up in 2010 when it bought Sun Microsystems. Oracle is seeking billions of dollars in damages.
Buying the IBM patents may not protect Google from litigation, but intellectual property specialist Florian Mueller called it “a significant transaction that will serve as a deterrent for anyone contemplating a lawsuit against Google.”
He added: “It’s possible that Google will try to use some of those patents as leverage against Oracle in the build-up to the trial.”