Google Seeks Patent on Open Source Compression Codec

“Rather than obtaining a patent, [the inventor] wanted his technique to be made available to all in the public domain. Google had other plans.”

Ben Brownlow Profile Picture by: Ben Brownlow, Senior Vice President, Licensing | May 15, 2018

Ars Technica recently published story highlighting inventor Jarek Duda, who conceived a novel entropy coding compression technique called asymmetric numeral systems (ANS).[i]  Jarek insisted on making this novel technique available to all as an open source codec.  Rather than obtaining a patent, Duda wanted his technique to be made available to all in the public domain.

Google had other plans.  Google LLC filed U.S. App. No. 15/370,840 (“Mixed Boolean-token ANS efficient coding”) on Dec. 6, 2016, claiming a priority date of Dec. 7, 2015 (the date Google filed its provisional patent application).[ii]

Google’s patent application essentially takes Duda’s technique and applies it to a video compression use case.  When solicited for comment about Google’s baffling patent application, Google representatives claimed that Duda had only conceived of a theoretical concept that is not patent eligible and that Google is seeking to patent a specific application of Duda’s theoretical concept reflecting additional work done by Google’s engineers.

What makes this look even worse is an email exchange between Duda and Google engineers spanning January 2014 to August 2017 through which he explained in further detail his invention and how it could be applied to Google video compression algorithms.[iii]  In these emails, Duda even specifically suggested that Google apply ANS to video compression like VP9.

Now Duda wants Google (at the very least) to recognize him as the original inventor and guarantee that the patent will not be used to exclude others from using his invention if they were to receive a notice of allowance for their pending application.  Alternatively, and Duda’s likely preference, would be for Google to simply abandon its patent application filed to cover an invention they (a) did not conceive and (b) is predated by Duda’s prior art codec.

Duda maintains that Google’s patent application simply applies ANS to a conventional video decoding pipeline. A preliminary ruling made by the European patent office agreed with Duda and concluded that claim 1 of Google’s patent application does not contain an inventive step.[iv]

Google appears to be doubling down rather than backing down.  Not only are they planning to fight the preliminary ruling in Europe, but they are also going to continue pursuing a U.S. patent on the same concept.  Google spokespersons relayed that the software will be made available on permissive royalty-free terms, but Duda (and anyone else familiar with the tech giant) knows from experience that there will always be some strings attached if Google earns the exclusive right to Duda’s ANS compression technique.

Duda’s squabble with Google serves as a cautionary tale to software inventors dedicated to keeping their inventive concepts in the public domain.  Had Duda simply sought a patent for himself he would have secured the right to exclude others from practicing the patented concept (which, contrary to Google’s suggestion, would be most certainly have been patent eligible) rather than releasing it to the public domain with no legal protection and naively entrusting that Google would “do no evil.”

Since 2000, Google has included the phrase “Don’t Be Evil” in its internal code of conduct.  That phrase curiously disappeared from Alphabet’s updated code of conduct when the company underwent corporate restructuring.[v]  Those of us familiar with the patent-related lobbying activities funded by Google and other powerful technology companies know they are directly responsible for diminishing the position of inventors, start-up companies, and the health of the U.S. economy to serve their own selfish interests.  I applaud Google for its honesty – if they are going to continue these evil actions (they will), at least now they can be honest about it.

[i] https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/06/inventor-says-google-is-patenting-work-he-put-in-the-public-domain/

[ii] https://patents.google.com/patent/US20170164007A1/en

[iii] https://groups.google.com/a/webmproject.org/forum/#!topic/codec-devel/idezdUoV1yY

[iv] https://register.epo.org/application?documentId=E1JCDL908256DSU&number=EP16819781&lng=en&npl=false

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/10/05/alphabet-now-googles-overlord-ditches-dont-be-evil-in-favor-of-do-the-right-thing/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.336e0daabda6

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