Home > Analysis, media, Opinion, politics, technology > What Should Be Done with Google’s IP in China?

What Should Be Done with Google’s IP in China?

Google search may have left China, but does Google owe responsibilities to the people of a place it has recently left?

This is not an academic question, especially since many believe that Google’s exit will hurt average people in China. According to this CNN article,

Businesses and universities could be substantially affected by the departure of Google from China.

Most of the country’s nearly 400 million Internet users may not be affected by the closure. But academics, university students and other researchers rely heavily on Google’s search services to access information not available through Chinese search engines, like Baidu.com, China’s most popular search portal. Small businesses that depend on Google applications such as Google Docs and Gmail may also suffer, analysts said.

A recent survey of more than 700 Chinese scientists conducted by the journal Nature found that 80 percent regularly use Google to search for academic papers while 60 percent said they use the site to stay on top of new research.

“Students who care more about searching for quality information choose to use Google because it definitely provides better search results than Baidu,” said Xin Liu, a recent graduate of Fudan University in Shanghai. “It will force more and more students to use wall-climbing software.”

“If the filtering increases in any way from the past, it is going to be a problem because none of the Chinese search engines are good at searching the international Internet in English. That is going to impact anyone who relies on that,” Goldkorn said.

Others say they are worried Google applications, including its popular Gmail service and document sharing service Google Docs, could eventually be banned.

The impact on the science community could be especially severe.  According to this Nature article,

“Research without Google would be like life without electricity,” says Xiong Zhenqin, an ecologist at Nanjing Agricultural University in Jiangsu province.

Xiong is not alone in thinking that Google is indispensable. Its search engine is a powerful tool for helping scientists to find academic papers and details of conferences or identify potential collaborators. And for most researchers around the world, access to Google — and all its related products, including the literature search Google Scholar — is as unfettered as their access to heat or light.

More than 80% use the search engine to find academic papers; close to 60% use it to get information about scientific discoveries or other scientists’ research programmes; and one-third use it to find science-policy and funding news…. They also rely heavily on other Google products: more than half use Google Scholar, for example, and Google’s mapping and e-mail applications are also popular….

“The findings are very typical of most countries in the world,” says David Bousfield, London-based vice-president and lead analyst of Outsell, an information and publishing consultancy. “Google and Google Scholar have become indispensable tools for scientists.”

Science in China would not come to a halt without Google, adds David Nicholas, an Internet researcher at University College London. But Google “has transformed information-seeking behaviours in academic communities”, and losing such an important research tool would significantly compromise scientists’ efficiency, he says.

For Chinese scientists seeking out academic papers, there are other options. According to one respondent: “It doesn’t matter whether we have Google for science — we have PubMed.”

PubMed, provided by the US National Library of Medicine, is one of many services for searching content in academic databases; others include the Web of Science from Thomson Reuters and Scopus and ScienceDirect, both run by Elsevier. However, “many researchers prefer Google as their primary search tool because they can get a large amount and a large variety of information indexed by Google which they can’t get easily from any other sources”, says Bousfield.

When ScienceDirect opened its content to Google in March 2007, for example, the proportion of traffic channelled from Google rose to more than 40% in the space of a few months, says Nicholas. “We live in an information era and Google is the key to the door of the global village,” he says. “Not having Google would be a huge disadvantage, especially for young academics.”

84% of the scientists who responded to Nature’s survey say that losing Google would “somewhat or significantly” hamper their research…; 78% say that international collaborations would be affected to the same degree. Scientists in the 25–34-year age range were most likely to say that losing Google would “significantly” — rather than “somewhat” — hamper their research.

Nearly half of the survey respondents say that if they lost access to Google’s search engine, they would switch to Baidu, a domestic search engine. Many non-scientists in China are happy with Baidu and don’t really care whether Google stays or goes. “Google has little advantage over Baidu on search algorithms for Chinese-language content,” says Guo Liang, an Internet researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. But it is much less useful for academics doing English-language searches for material outside China. Guo’s research shows that, despite Baidu’s dominance in China, Google is much more popular among academics and other highly educated people. Nature’s survey also found that only 17% of the respondents use Baidu as their primary search engine.

Guobin Yang, an Internet researcher at Barnard College in New York City, argues that Google.cn has a responsibility to stay. “People have been largely focusing on how the filtered content has limited access to certain information,” he says. “But Google’s presence has also helped the development of civil society in China” because it equips citizens with the information they need to be more politically active.

As one of the survey respondents put it: “If I lose Google, it will [be] just like a man without his eyes.”

Google’s exit of China may hurt many people today, but the amazing thing is that even long after Google leaves China, its (former) existence could to cast a long shadow on Chinese life for years to come. Take Google’s IP assets as an example.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Google has 134 patents / patent applications on file in China. Given that Google search decides to not reap any profit in China in the indefinite future, should Google hold onto those patents or donate these patents to the Chinese public? Should Google leverage those assets as pawns in its chess game against the Chinese government – even if doing so may keep the Chinese people in the dark?  Or should Google “transfer” those technologies to companies staying in China to help them provide innovative services to the Chinese populace?

Besides “hard IP,” Google also holds the key to accessing a treasure trove of scholarly knowledge written in English. In recent years, Google has signed agreements with book publishers, copyright holders, scholarly journals, school libraries to digitize and index their content. Does Google have a responsibility to make those information available to the Chinese populace now – especially after choosing to no longer maintain a presence in China? To the extent it has the right to sub-license those information, should Google sub-license those information to Chinese operators in China? To the extent the law allows for it, should the Chinese government compel the same?

Now that Google’s decision to leave China is official, what should be done with Google’s IP in China?

What should a company sworn to “do no evil” do?

  1. March 31st, 2010 at 23:49 | #1

    Interesting questions, Allen. I am curious what happens to Google’s patent applications if Google completely ceases operation in China? The applications become public domain automatically?

    Regarding Google’s edge over Baidu on searching English language based journals and articles – isn’t this simply a demand that Baidu would have to meet, otherwise some other search engine operating in China would eventually fill? The end-user expectation for Baidu (or any search engine) from Chinese netizens should be that it ought to be good at fetching anything around the globe and be able to translate into Chinese well.

    To your last question, yeah, Google ought to do some “walk the walk” and give it away for free. But, I doubt it. If it comes down to Google completely pulling out, then I bet they will sell the patent applications to Bing or some other search engine with legal presence in China.

  2. r v
    April 1st, 2010 at 06:10 | #2


    Evenif Google completely ceases operations in China, it can still own patents in China as a foreign corporate entity. There is no requirement that Google must use its patented technologies in China.

    I have heard that Google’s search engine, by comparison, is much better than other search engines. Baidu may have to retune their search engine to get better search results from foreign websites. But then again, Google’s search engine didn’t seem to perform well in Chinese webspace.

  3. April 1st, 2010 at 07:56 | #3

    @YinYang #1,

    No, Google can still hold patents. What I am raising is a moral issue.

    Suppose Google is a pharmaceutical company and has a patent on an important drug – say to treat AIDS – around the world, including in China. However Google decides to stop making and distributing its AIDS drug in China because of a political dispute. AIDS drugs are often distributed through government family planning centers, but Google believes family planning (as practiced by the Chinese gov’t) is against human rights.

    Google decides to leave the Chinese market and leave the Chinese populace without the drugs. With their patents, they can go after anyone in China who produce the drug without Google’s permission even though Google has no operational presence in China.

    Wouldn’t Google have a humanitarian duty to give away its rights to the AIDS drug in China so others can produce the drug for the Chinese populace? Why hold the Chinese people hostage? At the very least, Google has a responsibility to license it out. But since Google does not expect to make money in the Chinese market (because it has voluntarily withdrawn from the market), Google should license the drug out for very cheap – if not for free.

  4. r v
    April 1st, 2010 at 08:38 | #4


    There are provisions in Chinese IP laws that will allow the Chinese government to issue “compulsory technology licenses” to Chinese companies.

    Companies that hold patents in China but do not use them, can be compelled to license the technology to competitors who want to use the technologies.

    The moral basis of this is quite simple: an entity that discovers a new technology should be rewarded by giving it the monopoly right to first exploit the technology. However, if that entity does not exploit the technology, and if the technology is important enough, then the public right to knowledge trumps the individual right to that IP.

  5. April 2nd, 2010 at 11:37 | #5

    @r v #4,

    You are right. There have always been business-motivated patent trolls – but I guess there will now be a new breed of politically-motivated patent trolls as well…

  6. r v
    April 3rd, 2010 at 06:36 | #6

    Chinese patent laws are not very favorable to patent trolls, one way or another.

    They picked the wrong playground.

  7. April 5th, 2010 at 22:43 | #7

    @Allen, #3

    I see.

    @r v, Allen,

    Very interesting and makes sense.

  8. Ariel Ky
    April 6th, 2010 at 23:53 | #8

    As far as I understand, Chinese netizens can still search in English by using http://www.google.com.

    It’s only http://www.google.com.cn that provides access in Chinese that is shut down. So, if academics want to research information in English, that is still possible.

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  9. April 7th, 2010 at 00:09 | #9

    @Ariel Ky

    You are right. There’s reports of Google having around 25% market share, but about 10-15% of that is really generated by Chinese netizens using the English google.com. All of us at HH understand this nuance.

    In the U.S. media, this google.cn issue is often casted in terms of “Google pulling out of China,” and we are essentially following this same “blunt” view of the situation. Well, my guess on Allen’s intent anyways. Next time he’s online, he might chime in if otherwise.

    Anyways, welcome to HH.

  10. April 16th, 2010 at 23:20 | #10

    @Ariel Ky #8,

    To understand my point, one should note that google.com.cn is subject to laws of China while google.com is not. The issue over google.com.cn is whether Google is willing to do business in China (make its products available in China) in a way that complies with Chinese laws. Google’s pulling out indictates it is not.

    You are right that Chinese users for now can still access Google.com and that the fight over google.com.cn is only symbolic as far as English search is concerned. But the point this still raises is that if Google as a company has decided it will not provide its products in ways that complies with Chinese laws, should Chinese laws be leveraged to protect Google IP – in ways that may be detriment to the Chinese people?

    There are also practical issues… Most people in China when using Google used google.com.cn not google.com. It’s the same in other countries I’ve been to recently (users use their nation’s version of google, not the Amercan version). Part of the reason is because those localized versions are tailored to search in the local language, too. So Google’s pulling of China does have real consequences.

  11. r v
    April 20th, 2010 at 12:59 | #11


    Google: U.S. Demanded User Info 3,500 Times in 6 Months
    By Ryan Singel April 20, 2010 | 1:12 pm | Categories: Sunshine and Secrecy

    Search engines and ISPs have for years refused to tell the public how many times the cops and feds have forced them to turn over information on users.

    Google broke that unwritten code of silence Tuesday, unveiling a Government Requests Tool that shows the public how often individual governments around the world have asked for user information, and how often they’ve asked Google to remove content from their sites or search index, for reasons other than copyright violation.

    The answer for U.S. users is 3,580 total requests for information over a six-month period from July 2009 to December 2009. That number comes to about 20 a day, and includes subpoenas and search warrants from state, local and federal law enforcement officials. Brazil just edges out the U.S. in the number of requests for data about users, with 3,663 over those six months. That’s due to the continuing Brazilian popularity of Google’s social networking site, Orkut.

    Google VP David Drummond announced the tool in a blog post Tuesday, casting it as a tool to cut down on censorship — not surprising, given that Google says it’s been censored by 25 of the 100 countries it operates in.

    [G]overnment censorship of the web is growing rapidly: from the outright blocking and filtering of sites, to court orders limiting access to information and legislation forcing companies to self-censor content.

    So it’s no surprise that Google, like other technology and telecommunications companies, regularly receives demands from government agencies to remove content from our services. Of course many of these requests are entirely legitimate, such as requests for the removal of child pornography. We also regularly receive requests from law enforcement agencies to hand over private user data. Again, the vast majority of these requests are valid and the information needed is for legitimate criminal investigations. However, data about these activities historically has not been broadly available. We believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship.

    Google is also releasing information about the number of times governments ask the company to take down content or remove links. These include requests to take down defamatory videos, such as the one that led to prosecution of Google executives in Italy. The statistics do not include requests based on copyright or from reports of child pornography, since Google automatically takes down the latter whenever it detects it.

    Google has long pledged its allegiance to transparency and says this announcement will add to the long-running debate about how much power law enforcement and governments should have to see what citizens do online.

    A broad consortium of tech companies and privacy groups recently announced a push to modernize the nation’s privacy laws so that data stored by third parties, especially by so-called cloud computing services like Gmail, are treated just like data stored on citizens’ home computers. Currently, e-mails stored online lose much of their legal protection after 6 months, and the Justice Department recently tried to get at unopened mail online without having to get a proper search warrant.

    The numbers reflect only criminal investigations, and do not include national security investigation powers such as National Security Lettters or FISA warrants, which companies are often not legally allowed to disclose.

    The numbers also do not include the number of people named in the requests, whether Google fought the request, or which products the requests apply to. The company says it plans to release that information after it figures out how to create meaningful statistics, since a single request can apply to multiple people using multiple products, or conversely, Google can receive multiple requests concerning the same person.

    Threat Level has been agitating since 2006 for Google to disclose records requests. While there’s more the company could reveal, today’s move is an unprecedented step from an internet giant.

    ISPs and large tech companies have long used the excuse that they don’t publish this information because no one else does. Now that Google has taken this first step, that argument no longer works. And we are looking at you, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon and AT&T, when we say that.

  12. r v
    April 20th, 2010 at 13:00 | #12

    Google, burning evil bridges.

  13. April 20th, 2010 at 15:14 | #13

    @r v,

    Thx for the article.

    Per our discussions in the past about truth – I think at the end of the day, its is usually easier to find and defend truth. Seeking out the truth is another matter as people usually are content with prejudice and ignorance.

    So, even though this truth is “out,” most Americans are probably sticking with this “Google vs. Evil” Chinese government prejudice. Google knew exactly what they were doing back in January when they started this smearing campaign against China for its own benefit. There is money to be made in the U.S. continuing to paint China a bogeyman. Very evil in my book.

  14. r v
    April 20th, 2010 at 17:43 | #14

    I had a feeling that Google’s management had some major changes, and it looks like they are not just confronting Chinese government.

    I think Google is conducting some kind of PR campaign, in light of its own anti-trust problems in various countries.

    But this is a very dangerous gambit. Google may very well piss off too many governments.

  15. April 29th, 2010 at 00:46 | #15

    Baidu just reported Q1 profits jumping 165% and no doubt, a hike in advertisers migrating over from Google.cn

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.