Google micropayments patent application published

There’s been a lot of speculation that Google would launch some type of micropayment system soon, and a patent application issued today seems to bring that closer to us.

Micropayments inevitable

This isn’t the first patent application from Google that talks about micro-payments. One from a couple of years ago, Method for searching media , discusses the delivery of premium content from magazines and newspapers and books in exchange for very small payments.

And, with talk of Google Base, Google Wallet, and the ability to sell videos on Google Video search, it has seemed inevitable that some type of payment system would be in place soon.

Google Base already has methods in place for people to accept payments through Google, though those seem to be on a per-transaction basis. TechCrunch showed off some screenshots of a seller reputation page in the beginning of March. The new patent application includes the consolidation of payments to sellers, which would make micropayments more viable, and also a reputation management system.

A discussion (source no longer available) last week with Google’s head of engineering, Alan Eustace, pointed out some other possibilities, too:

“We developed something for internal use, as we found that there was a gap in the user experience. We wanted to enable people to sell using Google Earth, without the user going through multiple websites and handing their credit card numbers, let’s see where it goes. We have a great relationship with eBay, it’s a great company, but it is not the only answer to payments on the internet,” Alan Eustace told ET enigmatically.

Patent application on micro-payment system architecture

Micro-payment system architecture
Inventors: Thomas A. Nielsen, John Dominick Piscitello, Arturo Crespo, Louis Vincent Perrochon, Benjamin Chan-Bin Ling, and Georges Harik
US Patent Application 20060080238
Published April 13, 2006
Filed: November 24, 2004


A micro-payment system has buyers, sellers, and a broker. The buyers establish accounts with the broker and provide payment information allowing the broker to invoice the buyers. The sellers establish accounts with the brokers and specify terms for accessing items, including electronic content, available from the sellers. The sellers also provide payment information that allows the broker to credit the sellers for sales of the items. The broker aggregates the buyers’ micro-payment purchases and invoices the buyers. The broker also aggregates the sellers’ micro-payment sales and credits the sellers.

Micro-payments, from fractions of a cent to a few dollars, haven’t taken off on the web, but with the backing of an organization like Google, they may see some success.

Some points made in the document regarding the process it describes:

1. It could be used with a computer via browser, or through other devices such as a cellular phone, PDA, pager, or even television “set-top” box.

2. A seller could offer tangible goods through this system, such as books, CDs, DVDs, electronic goods, etc., or intangible items, like web pages, downloadable files, streaming media, etc. The primary focus of the description in the patent application is on the sale of electronic content, though both tangible and intangible items may be sold via this method.

3. The broker is described as acting as an intermediary between buyers and sellers, to enable them to engage in micropayment transactions.

4. While the system can use standard means of communicating across the web. Secure transactions involving SSL, or secure http, or virtual private networks is also a possibility.

5. This architecture allows for such things as refunds, dispute resolution, reputation scores regarding both the seller and the content being purchased, fraud detection, parental control access limitations, and maintaining a credit or depository account with the broker,

6. The buyer sets up an account, through a web interface, with the broker, where the buyer provides a credit card or other payment information. The seller establishes an account with the broker through a web interface, and provides information about potential transactions. As I noted above, Google Base already has a payment account system in place for sellers. Where this differs is that the system described allows for the consolidation of purchases and sales, so that fees for credit card transactions don’t end up costing more than these microtransactions are worth.

7. The broker indexes the content available from the seller, and includes it into the data that can be returned to buyers in response to a search query.

8. The broker may display both free content, and premium content to a buyer, as well as showing reputation scores for the content, or the seller or both.

9. The buyer could also possibly browse a content directory to find premium content, in addition to searching for it.

It’s not difficult to envision how a micro-payment system could be incorporated into a number of the services that Google presently provides.

I remember when Jakob Nielsen made The Case For Micropayments back in 1998. He predicted that it would become a common model for sharing and distributing content within two years. That model isn’t very widespread yet, but it may become a lot more common soon.