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Is Google the “Snow White” of the Patent System?


Written by Gene Quinn
Patent Attorney & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Principal Lecturer, PLI Patent Bar Review Course
Posted: November 20, 2013 @ 7:50 am

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The man with the electronic throat tattoo. Figure 3 from U.S. Patent Application 20130297301.

File this in the “you have to be kidding me” category if you like, but U.S. Patent Application No. 20130297301, which published November 7, 2013, shows that Google has applied for a patent on a system and method of coupling an electronic skin tattoo together with a mobile communication device. It seems that this particular electronic tattoo incorporated circuitry within the tattoo that enables the picking up of acoustic sounds that emanate from the throat region of the body when said tattoo is applied in close proximity to the throat region.

Essentially, Google is trying to patent a throat microphone that is embedded in a tattoo.

With this patent application it seems to me that Google has officially jumped the shark, and has lost all credibility in the patent debate they seem so desperate to influence in an anti-patent way. Google representatives constantly preach that they don’t need patents, they don’t want patents, the world would be a better place without patents, and that the only reason that they obtain patents is for defensive purposes. That specious argument never rang true, particularly when they would pivot from “we only get patents for defensive purposes” into complaining about the injustice they suffer at the hands of patent trolls, as if to tie the two wholly unrelated matters together.

What good does a defensive patent portfolio do against a patent troll? Absolutely none! Patent trolls don’t do anything. They are a subset of non-practising entity that does not engage in activities other than acquiring patents and suing thereon. Patent trolls do not make, use, sell, offer for sale or import anything, so claiming or inferring that a defensive patent portfolio provides any benefit against troll litigation is not only absurd, but it is also misleading.

Furthermore, Google is really a very aggressive user of the patent system. They seek to acquire patents on a variety of innovations, just like everyone else. We profile them regularly on IPWatchdog in the Companies We Follow series. See Google Patents. Just yesterday we profiled a patent application that Google is seeking on a method of aggregating news in a social media context. See Google Seeks Patent on Social News AggregatorClaim 1 of that Google patent application would protect:

“A computer-implemented method comprising: receiving a request from a user for a news aggregator page related to a news story; retrieving social contents items related to the news story; and providing the news aggregator page for display, wherein the news aggregator page comprises a plurality of links to news content items related to the news story, and the retrieved social content items related to the news story.”

So can we stop pretending that Google isn’t like every other user of the patent system?  They are not Snow White. They are not the Mother Teresa of patents.  Google seeks broad, sometimes nearly ridiculously broad, patent claims must like everyone else. Yet to listen to them they would have you, and Members of Congress and the media, believe that they are the only altruistic actor and impartial voice in the patent debate. They criticize other companies, but their own practices are no different.

Looking at what Google patents and seeks to protect with pending patent applications it is clear that Google has a patent agenda other than for purely defensive purposes. For example, they obtained a design patent on the layout of the Google search page. How is that defensive? Seems more like they wanted to protect what they developed so others would encroach on their turf, which is exactly the point of the patent system. I’m not criticizing Google for doing what is reasonable, responsible and in the best interest of their shareholders, but before you buy into their anti-patent rhetoric look deeper at their actions. Actions speak louder than any words ever can, and Google is a serious user of the patent system and they seek exclusive rights wherever they can and not just for defensive purposes, at least if you buy into their so-called patent troll problem. No patent will ever stop a patent troll, so their position is simply not factually credible.

Now we learn that Google is seeking a patent on an electronic skin tattoo that would be applied to the “throat region of a body,” and which is communicatively coupled to a communications device. Again, I have no problem with Google seeking this or any other patent, but can we stop pretending that Google is somehow different than other technology companies and a true defender of a patent-less world? They pursue patents of all varieties that they think they can obtain, including patents on an electronic skin tattoo capable of being applied to the throat region of the body of a wearer. And how in the world would this patent be defensive? To be defensive they would have to be acquiring it for purposes of leveling a counter claim if they are sued by a manufacturing company that operates in the same space with patents of their own.

Notwithstanding, let’s take a closer look at the innovation Google wants exclusive rights on, presumably for defensive only reasons if you actually believe their rhetoric. Claim 1 from the published application seeks coverage for:

A system for providing auxiliary voice input to a mobile communication device (MCD), comprising: an electronic skin tattoo capable of being applied to a throat region of a body; the electronic skin tattoo further comprising: a microphone embedded in the electronic skin tattoo; a transceiver that enables wireless communication with the mobile communication device; a power supply configured to receive energizing signals from a personal area network associated with the MCD; a controller communicatively coupled to the power supply; and wherein the electronic skin tattoo is capable of receiving an initialization signal at the controller and from the MCD to initiate reception of an audio stream picked up from the throat region of the body for subsequent audio detection by the MCD under an improved signal-to-noise ratio than without employing the electronic skin tattoo.

Claim 13 is another independent claim, this time on a method, and seeks exclusive rights for:

A method for providing auxiliary voice input to a mobile communication device (MCD), comprising: receiving an initialization signal at an electronic skin tattoo embedded with a microphone and transceiver; activating acoustic circuitry for the electronic skin tattoo; receiving an audio signal from the embedded microphone; converting audio signal to digital signal; and transmitting the digital signal to the MCD.

It will be interesting to see what happens with this patent as it proceeds through examination. It will be even more interesting to see if this patent gets thrown back in Google’s collective corporate face by innovator companies that Google claims get many silly patents just to pump up their numbers and for no particular business purpose.

It is one thing to be anti-patent, but quite another to say one thing and then do another.

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Posted in: Companies We Follow, Gene Quinn, Google, IP News, IPWatchdog.com Articles, Patents, Technology & Innovation

About the Author

is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog IPWatchdog.com, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.

 

4 comments
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  1. Absolutely correct that they use the patent system aggressively in terms of pursuing wide claim coverage, acquiring patents, etc. Patent trolls aren’t the only individuals to sue companies like Google, however, so Patents do have a great defensive purpose. Also, acquiring patents or filing for patents allows them to build out the technology they want with at least less fear that they will be prevented from doing what they want to be able to do.

    I’m not saying they are a Snow White, by any means. I don’t have the citation handy at the moment, but it seems like a few years back Eric Schmidt at Google said something about building out their technology first and figuring out what to do about patents that their technology infringes later. However, I’m not really aware of any cases where Google is the aggressor or first to strike in patent litigation against alleged infringers.

    Google may be anti-patent in rhetoric, but they understand they have to play the game if they want to avoid being forced out of the market by other people’s patents. They can’t just bury their head in the sand and hope the threat of patent trolls and others goes away. Amazon.com is another prime example of a large technology company that develops and acquires patented technologies but is not the aggressor in suing potential infringers

    Reference to a tattooed microphone patent application doesn’t really help this article, IMHO. Sure it may be a crazy invention, but there are a ton of crazy inventions out there and many applications are filed as a “just in case”. Google has a lot of what they call moonshot projects that may or may not ever make it out of the lab, but if it did, should they lose the ability to protect their idea simply because someone thought it was silly when they were first developing it?

  2. I don’t see how this patent makes them have jumped the shark. At worst it would seem they did one just for fun. At best, they’re looking to make people cyborgs along with their google glass so we can all walk around as if in a sci-fi movie.

  3. I wouldn’t put too much stock into this particular patent application (Coupling an Electronic Skin Tattoo to a Mobile Communication Device) being indicative of Google’s approach to patents. This particular application was filed a couple weeks being the acquisition of Motorola Mobility was final, and one might infer from the original informal drawings that it was being rushed. Since I don’t know the details of what say Google had on new Motorola Mobility patent applications in early May 2012, it is possible Google had some involvement in this patent application, and at the very least has not put a stop to prosecuting the application.

  4. Charles-

    Google reportedly is filing 4,000+ patent applications a year. They are a very aggressive user of the patent system, which just does not jive with their saying the patent system is unnecessary. Acquiring patents does nothing whatsoever to stop a patent troll, so obviously Google is spending vast amounts of shareholder funds for some other purpose.

    -Gene