Recently, the technology press has been aflutter with coverage of Google’s newly released Android mobile operating system and the first Android-enabled commercial handset from HTC being offered by T-Mobile. Much of this coverage has focused on Google’s ZXing barcode recognition SDK, a software library that turns an Android-enabled cameraphone into barcode scanner. Barcode scanning-enabled applications, such as Compare Everywhere (formerly called Android Scan) were among some of the most interesting winners of the first round of the Android Developer Challenge.
Unfortunately, many of these developers are ignoring the existence of key patents related to use of cell phones as barcode scanners that may ultimately doom their application. Several firms, including Neomedia and Scanbuy, have received patents on accessing content by taking a photo of a barcode with a cell phone, or linking physical media to information on a network using an mobile device. Are these patents defensible? Probably not, as they likely fail the requirement that an invention be non-obvious to someone versed in the state of the art.
Whether or not these patents will withstand judicial scrutiny in the long term is inconsequential. The patents have been issued and in the short term their owners will undoubtedly attempt to use them to extract funds from Android developers that build on top of ZXing to create barcode scanning-enabled mobile applications. Those that have managed to create an application that generates revenue will have to choose between paying up, folding, or taking the fight to court. I happen to know that some of these same patent holders have attempted to shake down other, non-Android, mobile application developers aggressively in the past.
What’s especially interesting is that this is an issue that Google appears to be carefully and studiously ignoring. While the EFF has been attempting to bust down some of these patents, that won’t be good enough in the short term. Until those patent hurdles are removed, developers will need to realize the risk that they may be facing by building on Android and the ZXing library.