Michelle Lee, Head of Google Patents and Patent Strategy, has written an article on Google Public Policy Blog titled "Reforming patents, promoting innovation", complaining about patent trolls:
Google and other technology companies increasingly face mounting legal costs to defend against frivolous patent claims from parties gaming the system to forestall competition or reap windfall profits.
While the article goes on with possible remedies, one of the commenter on the article, Ben Klemens, author of the book "Math You Can't Use: Patents, Copyright, and Software" is raising the issue of subject matter:
I wish you guys would put your weight behind solving the real problem: subject matter expansion. Until the mid-1990s, a patent had to have a non-trivial physical element, like a drug or a new machine; but at that time, a panel of former patent attorneys decided — without referring to Congress or other prior study — that non-physical objects like mathematical algorithms and business methods should be patentable. A few years later, all the "Patent System Broken" headlines started appearing.
I can't tell from your public statement here whether you in the public policy department support or do not support software patents per se, though I would bet you a dollar that if you surveyed your employees, the great majority would call software and business method patents an impediment. [The Google engineers I know all loathe software patents, though I may have a biased sample.]
Google holds patents, and its SEC filings indicate that those patents are important to its business, but that doesn't tell us anything about the official Google position on software patents: the authors of the SEC filing could be referring to holding patents for defense against other patent-holders, or to using patents for asserting claims against others implementing similar algorithms.
So given that many of your engineers find patenting a mathematical algorithm to be (as your founding engineers woud say) evil, I was hoping that you would put your weight behind something a little closer to the true root of the problem, such as a bill that would include some attempt to address what is patentable subject matter. Such a bill is not necessarily politically impossible, since most of the country's patenters of physical objects (pharma, mechanical, and everything in between) desperately want software patents to go away so they can go back to business before all those "Patent System Broken" headlines.
Why is Google supporting this tepid bill? Have you determined that it's time your engineers revise their ethical beliefs regarding mathematical algorithms? Or is a bill that would address subject matter problems just too unlikely to work?
author of Math You Can't Use: Patents, Copyright, and Software