Ask any person on the street about Bill Gate’s reputation, and they might throw out words such as “humanitarian” and “philanthropist” or “tech-genius.” But lately he’s earning another title: “Patent Troll.” The term comes from the practice of coming up with multiple ideas that the competition may use, filing patents on these ideas, and then suing companies who also come up with them.

Recently this has made for icy dealings between Microsoft and Google, as Gates has supported patents for products that seemed destined only to take down competitors such as Google’s Motorola company. It’s a case where products are being invented not to help anyone, but merely to generate income via lawsuits.

In fact, Gates works closely with a company called Intellectual Ventures which holds over 70,000 patents — but does not make a single product. While the company’s stated aim is to license out its ideas to other corporations, many critics argue that what the company really does is wait until its ideas exist via other products, and then sue the makers of those products.

Patents are often a major source of profit in the computer industry. Recently, for example, in a remarkable turn of events, a judged reversed a ruling which suggested that Google — who have earned a reputation for withholding patents where its interests dictate it should — will pay Microsoft, essentially, for Microsoft to use Google’s FRAND (“Fair, Reasonable, and Non-Discriminatory”) patents.

The deal arose when Google’s Motorola arm was countersued by Microsoft after Google demanded payment for use of Motorola patents in Microsoft products. Microsoft’s countersuit meant that not only would Microsoft be able to use Google’s patents, but to seek reimbursement from Google for damages amounting to over 10 million dollars.

All of this suggests that Apple may have a problem on their hands, if this case signifies anything about the tech elite. If Microsoft’s strategy is to use the legal world to turn patents inside out and profit off of the work of other companies, in other words, Apple may be next in line to hear from Microsoft’s lawyers.

It seems as though one of Google’s missteps was demanding too much in royalties for Microsoft’s use of their patents. When Microsoft went to court seeking relief for such costs, they pointed out that Google had demanded over 2 billion dollars in royalties. That amount may have set the case in motion, shifting the argument for a payout in Microsoft’s favor.

But when increasingly, in the grand scheme of business, new products seem to share common ground simply due to the chance occurrence of engineers working on the same problems, critics wonder if Microsoft will be making big business out of attacking similar products from other companies like Apple — and whether this could create a freezing process in new technological advances.

Since Apple and Microsoft are often working on the same intellectual ground, so to speak, it seems distinctly possible that they could have a major lawsuit on their hands in the near future if one of their products overlaps too much with Microsoft’s agenda. That could spell trouble for the already weakened tech giant, which is still reeling from the passing of founder Steve Jobs only a few years ago.

Mark Cord

wooblering@gmail.com