Recalling its rags-to-riches story of two guys with nothing but a great idea, a garage, and a hope of making the world a better place, Google recently announced its new Patent Starter Program. As part of its commitment to the culture from which it came, Google claims that it simply wants to help startups navigate the patent landscape by assigning them certain patents while it receives a license back. It describes the situation as follows:
The world of patents can be very confusing, cumbersome and often distracting for startups. All too often these days, the first time a startup has to deal with a patent issue is when a patent troll attacks them. Or when a prospective investor may ask them how they are protecting their ideas (“You don’t have any patents???”). These problems are the impetus behind the Patent Starter Program[.]
There are of course many tendentious assertions here – from the well-established definitional problems with the use of the pejorative term “patent troll,” which is often used to attack startups, to the untrue statement that patents are “distracting” for startups (which is false, as any person who watches Shark Tank knows). But we will not go over this well-tread territory here. For our purposes, this statement is notable because it is couched entirely in terms of a desire to help other tech startups. But when one looks at the specific details of the Patent Starter Program (PSP), it’s quite clear that it is designed to benefit Google as well – perhaps even most of all.
On its face, the PSP is advertised as an opportunity for the first 50 eligible participants (“startups or developers having 2014 Revenues between US $500,000 and US $20,000,000”) to select 2 families from Google’s patent portfolio out of an offering of between 3-5 families of Google’s choosing. These families are intended to be broadly relevant to the participant’s business, but Google makes no guarantee that they will be, and there is no “re-do” if the participant doesn’t like what Google offers the first time.
In exchange for access to these patents, many are not paying attention to the fine print that creates some significant contractual restrictions on anyone who uses the PSP. First and foremost, the patents cannot be used to initiate a lawsuit for infringement. They can be used only “defensively,” that is, if the participant is sued for infringement first. In fact, if a participant does choose to assert the supposedly-owned patent rights outside of Google’s terms, the Patent Purchase Agreement punishes the startup by requiring “additional payments” to be made to Google.