Matt Lonsdale is a JD candidate at Dalhousie University.
On April 15, 2011, a Texas court ordered Google to pay $5 million to Bedrock Computer Technologies for patent infringement. The patent covers a method of storing and retrieving data which is claimed to be used in a number of versions of the Linux kernel.
The Linux kernel forms the core of not just the operating system which runs Google’s many servers, but also of their Android operating system for mobile phones. The lawsuit was filed in 2009 against Google, Yahoo, MySpace, Amazon, PayPal, Match.com, AOL, CME Group, Softlayer and Citiware. The case was decided by a jury in the Eastern District of Texas. The jury rejected Google’s defense that they had not infringed the patent and that the patent was invalid, although the amount of the claim was reduced to $5 million from $180 million. The claims against Google were the first to reach a verdict and it is expected that Bedrock’s success there may lead to settlements with the other defendants. Google will likely appeal the settlement.
While the term Linux is often used to describe a complete operating system, the name actually refers only to the very core of the operating system, known as the kernel. The kernel is usually distributed together with a graphical user interface, device drivers and useful applications in order to comprise a useful system.
Unlike Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OSX, operating systems built around the Linux kernel are not distributed by only a single company. A number of companies have developed business models based around selling customized operating systems built around the Linux kernel, often bundled with technical support contracts. The lawsuit targets just a handful of the many large companies which make use of these operating systems. Perhaps motivated by a desire to protect its business model and its customers, Red Hat, one of the most prominent of the Linux distribution companies, is suing Bedrock in an attempt to have the patent invalidated.
While one commentator saw Google’s loss as having major implications for the IT industry, others were not as concerned and felt that this was merely an example of a bad decision in a lower court which would be overturned on appeal.
Google has criticized frivolous patent litigation and advocated for patent reform. In a letter to eWeek dated April 21, 2011, a spokesman for Google wrote “The recent explosion in patent litigation is turning the world’s information highway into a toll road, forcing companies to spend millions and millions of dollars defending old, questionable patent claims, and wasting resources that would be much better spent investing in new technologies for users and creating jobs”. Google is also currently facing a patent infringement lawsuit filed by Oracle concerning the Java programming language.