Google announced the existence of a new program known as PAX today, which apparently stands for Android Networked Cross-License Agreement (someone should tell Google how acronyms work). PAX is intended to reduce litigation between Android device makers by granting royalty-free licenses to any Android-related patents held by its members to all other members.
Google, Samsung, LG, HTC, Foxconn, HMD Global, Coolpad, BQ, and Allview are the founding members, which Google claims collectively control over 230,000 patents globally. Membership in PAX is free and open to any company in the business of making Android stuff. There's no obligation for Android OEMs to join, either. How's it work?
Great question! We don't know. The PAX license agreement is confidential and only made available to members of the PAX group. This means we actually have no idea what kind of leverage Google is exerting through this new program, nor what members are being asked to give or give up as part of joining. Google just wants us to know that PAX will be good for reducing patent litigation, because joining PAX means you're agreeing not to sue other members over certain patents. OK.
It's very easy to see how Google's creation of this initiative may draw more negative attention than positive. While reducing unnecessary patent litigation is a noble goal, it's just as easy to argue that Google is using its considerable clout among its partners in an attempt to disarm them of their intellectual property. After all, if a manufacturer holds out and doesn't join PAX, it could make them a potential target for litigation. But by joining PAX, that company could then potentially be less competitive if it loses the ability to assert some of its own intellectual property against rivals who are also in PAX. It's a double-edged blade.
Massive conglomerates like Samsung and LG have incentive to join, as it will lower the likelihood they'd be the target of patent lawsuits, a constant thorn in the side of many major corporations. Smaller companies arguably do have similar reasons to get on board, but they will likely have far more to weigh in terms of the value of their IP portfolio and the benefits of joining a massive cross-license program.
Indeed, this looks and feels like yet another tool in Google's growing belt of methods to ensure the Android ecosystem functions as Google wants it to. It may very well prove a positive - patent litigation is out of control, particularly in the United States. But there is a growing chorus of voices suggesting that for all the talk of openness and choice, "Google's" Android is increasingly coming with a lot of rules. PAX membership isn't compulsory, but that initial list of partners includes some big names, so there were probably some pretty good reasons for the likes of Samsung and Foxconn to get on board.
We'll probably never hear much about PAX, given its confidentiality, but I sure would like to read that license.