RealTime IT News

University, Startup Sue Google Over Database Technology

A patent-infringement suit filed in a federal court in Texas last week claims the core technology behind Google's search engine misappropriates the intellectual property of a Northeastern University professor and the startup he co-founded.

The suit alleges that Google's database architecture infringes on the patent "Distributed Computer Database System and Method," awarded to Kenneth Baclawski, an associate professor of computer science at Northeastern and co-founder of Waltham, Mass.-based Jarg Corp. Jarg and Northeastern are named as the plaintiffs in the case.

The technology in question is at the center Google's method for delivering search results, the suit claims. Specifically, the distributed-database technology owned by Northeastern and licensed exclusively to Jarg is the reason that Google can deliver its search results so quickly, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by InternetNews.com.

The suit claims that Google failed to "obtain a written or oral opinion of counsel regarding its infringement or non-infringement" of the patent in question, and calls for a jury trial in the hopes of winning an injunction "against further infringement," in addition to monetary damages. If awarded, such an injunction could shut down the world's most popular search engine.

"We believe the complaint to be without merit based upon our initial investigation," Google spokesman Jon Murchinson wrote in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.

The patent in question, U.S. patent No. 5,694,593, was awarded December 2, 1997. Google incorporated in 1998.

The complaint was filed in the Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas, which has historically been viewed as a plaintiff-friendly court in patent-infringement cases. But that may no longer be the case, according to Joe Potenza, a shareholder at the firm Banner & Witcoff in Washington, D.C.

"I don't think anything is a slam-dunk in Marshall," Potenza told InternetNews.com. "It's not as black and white as it used to be."

Marshall also used to be considered a fast-track court for patent-infringement cases, though Potenza says that it could easily be two years or longer before the Google case comes to trial.

In that time, Google could make its own appeal to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to reexamine the patent and what constitutes infringement. That process would entail an expert review of the patent and its validity in the context of Google's search technology. If the panel finds evidence of prior art, or previously existing technology of a similar nature to Baclawski's distributed computing system, Google could have a powerful weapon to bring to court, Potenza said.

The case could well turn on the question of prior art, which became much easier for defendants to demonstrate with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of KSR International Co. v. Teleflex Inc. in April. The KSR ruling broadened the definition of what is an "obvious" combination of existing inventions (prior art), and therefore ineligible for patent protection.

"You'll see a good discussion on prior art as the case plays out," Potenza said of the suit against Google. Should it come to trial, he expects Google will make the case that the distributed computing concepts behind its search technology did not originate with Baclawski's patent. "The concept of distributing the operations over several computers has been done," he said.

The plaintiffs will make the case that Baclawski's method for fragmenting search queries and distributing the hashed fragments over a database of networked computers was not obvious, and that prior art does not invalidate the patent.

The broader definition of the concept of "obviousness" found in the KSR ruling generally gives defendants a stronger position in patent-infringement cases, which could make companies like Google less inclined to settle out of court. The KSR ruling came more than a year after Research In Motion's landmark settlement with NTP in the patent dispute over the technology underlying the BlackBerry smartphone.