Imagine, if you will, that Microsoft just entered into an agreement with Google. Under this agreement, Google's programmers and engineers will continue to make Android and can keep whatever ad revenue they can extract from Android handsets. But Microsoft will now get paid a license fee for every Android handset sold and can sue companies that don't pay up.
You can stop imagining because it's already happening. Google's not at the table, but Microsoft has already entered into agreements with Samsung, Acer, HTC and several small Android device manufacturers ... whereby "entered into agreements" I mean in roughly the same way you enter into agreements with a mafia don, who says "That's a nice company you have there. It'd be a shame if something happened to it."
That's a cruder way to put it than "patent cross-licensing agreement," which is how Microsoft's lawyers described it coup on one of the company's blogs. In many ways, though, it's more apt. And Microsoft's dominance over Android is well on its way to being complete; as David Ruddock explains on Android Police, "Microsoft now has licensing agreements with companies that control well over 50 percent of the Android device ecosystem by market share."
To make things more clear, Microsoft did not lift a finger to help Samsung and HTC build Android phones. Rather, it made life more complicated for them by insisting that the open-source Android operating system they were using to build smartphones and tablets infringed on Microsoft's software patents -- in essence, that Microsoft did, in fact, own parts of Android, even though Microsoft didn't write any code for it.
Why this shouldn't be allowed to happen
The "finders, keepers" game encouraged by today's patent law means that because Microsoft wrote a particular piece of programming code before Google did, it now owns that code no matter who wrote it.
This may have helped encourage invention back when it took hundreds of tries to make an incandescent light bulb. But today's software patent laws let you do the equivalent of patenting a sentence because you were the first person to write it. Then you start combing through books and newspapers, looking for people that you can pounce on just because they happened to write something similar on their own. The words don't have to be exact, as long as the meaning's the same.
As you can imagine, this happens a lot. Especially when the meaning of a programming "sentence" is so obvious that a lot of people infringe by accident, or when it's really hard to word things differently even if you know the patent trap is there. Which is why companies like Microsoft, which own huge patent portfolios, also have huge legal departments. How else are they going to tax the companies that actually invent things?
"A clear path forward"
Microsoft's announcement says the agreements with Samsung and others "prove that licensing works," and "show what can be achieved when companies sit down and address intellectual property issues in a responsible manner."
For proper effect, imagine them doing so around a dimly-lit table, while Microsoft's lawyers are chewing cigars and pointing tommyguns at their backs.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.
- Technology & Electronics