Google has won a patent dispute over its famous “I’m feeling lucky” button that immediately connects a user to its top-raking search link with a single click.
The search engine giant was sued in 2016 by Israeli company Spring Ventures (previously Buy2 Networks) for allegedly infringing on its patent, US 8,661,094, that covers displaying a web page without extra user input.
The patent was originally filed in 1999, and the company won a continuation of it in 2014. Soon after it started sending letters to Google insisting that its button infringed at least 14 separate aspects of the patent because it allowed users to reach a webpage without providing a specific URL.
Google, funnily enough, ignored the upstart’s licensing demands, and so Spring Ventures sued in the United States. In response, Google went to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and asked it to review the patent’s validity.
And the three-person review came back this week with its answer: the patent was not valid because of its “obviousness.”
That may sound like a harsh putdown but in the rarefied world of patent law, the term “obvious” has a tediously precise meaning. You can read the full decision to find out precisely what it means but we don’t recommend it: patent lawyers have habit of turning written English into a gaspingly turgid explanation of a concept.
And so here is the plain English version: Spring Ventures patent a system for finding web pages that were not written in English (presumably there is a Yiddish aspect in there). The internet and the world wide web to this day remain a painfully ASCII medium thanks to all its early inventors only speaking English and so only writing that in their code.
This created a lot of problems for people used to non-ASCII symbols and letters in their everyday written language and so Spring Ventures patented a way for people to type in something very close to a non-ASCII name in ASCII and have it automatically figure out what they were looking for. Useful stuff.
At some point however it decided that this meant it had control over any system that automatically took a user to a website without them typing in the full website address e.g. example.com.
Google took issue with this argument and pointed out that this wasn’t exactly the first time that people had thought about how to make the vast landscape of web pages more manageable.
And so it dug back into the annals of internet browsing history and specifically Joe Belfiore’s patent for “Intelligent automatic searching” which he developed while working for Microsoft back in the Internet Explorer days (Belfiore is still at Microsoft btw). He filed it back in 1997.
There is another earlier patent too – Bernardo Sotomayor’s one for “Qualified searching of electronically stored documents” – which was explained in an article in Infoworld back in 1997 written by Serge Koren and talking about a product called EchoSearch.
Basically, Belfiore came up with a system for passing a search request in a browser bar that wasn’t a full URL through to a search engine and giving the user a results page – rather than just saying “this webpage doesn’t exist.” And EchoSearch was Java-run software that displayed results from several search engines pulled into a single page in response to a specific search.
Google argued that considering these two systems were already in place and in use before Spring Ventures made it patent application, that its whole concept was not some new imaginative leap that needed protecting but instead a pretty obvious thing that people were already doing.
And the patent board agreed [PDF].
The lawsuit that Spring Ventures initiated against Google has been on hold until the PTAB made a determination and will now die unless the Israeli appeals and successful persuades the board to reverse its decision – something that is possible given that the USPTO just changed its guidelines to make it easier to patent software applications. But it seems unlikely.
Which is lucky for Google. We can only imagine the payout if its one-click button was found to be infringing a patent
Incredible, the amount of money that must have been spent on lawyers to come to this obvious conclusion.