Patent Wars II: CMGI Strikes Back

"Tempest in a teapot."

That what I said in 1997, when Lycos announced it had patents on search engine crawling, and I see nothing different in light of AltaVista's recent claims.

CMGI's chairman and CEO David Wetherell, whose company has a majority stake in AltaVista, suggested in an Internet World article that some patents recently awarded to AltaVista might give it the ability to seek licensing fees.

"Virtually everyone out there who indexes the web is in violation of at least several of those key patents," Wetherall was quoted as saying, adding further that the company would take action against potential infringers soon.

The first reason I'm not worried about this is that Wetherall clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. In the article, he repeats a claim that AltaVista has tried to make before -- that they were the first to spider the web. They were not. Major search engines such as WebCrawler and Lycos were operating a year before the idea of a search engine was even discussed as Digital, which gave birth to AltaVista.

Who was really first? It depends on your definition. The World Wide Web Wanderer is widely recognized as the first web crawler, and it was launched in 1993. However, it didn't let you search anything. Instead, it was designed to measure the growth of the web. In contrast, WebCrawler seems to be the first full-text crawler-based search engine similar to those we use today.

Another example of Wetherall's lack of knowledge is when he discusses a specific set of patents about indexing distributed databases. That sounds similar to a patent Infoseek claimed -- back in 1997.

Infoseek rolled that out almost a week after Lycos let loose a scare about patents it expected to be granted related to web searching. Despite a scary sounding statement from the Lycos chief scientist at the time, four years later, nothing has ever come of this.

Most important is the fact that our current group of search engines all use their own different types of technologies to generate results, and many have patents on the exact techniques they use. That hasn't prevented other search engines from coming up with their own techniques. For example, Direct Hit has patents relating to the use of clickthrough measurements to improve results. That hasn't stopped Inktomi, Yahoo and others from tracking clicks.

Concern over AltaVista's threats probably would have disappeared, but flames were fanned when Alan Emtage, who created the Archie FTP search service in 1990, said he stood by to help anyone fight attempts by AltaVista to pursue its patents. That produced another round of articles, which in turn made AltaVista's threats seem even more real.

I asked AltaVista for the record whether they really do plan on taking action such as outlined by Wetherall -- no response yet. I'll let you know if I get one. More likely, the threat will be allowed to quietly disappear.

The Internet World Interview: David Wetherell
Internet World, Jan. 15, 2001

The interview that sparked the concern over AltaVista's patents.

CMGI Claims Patently Wrong
Wired, Jan. 31, 2001,1282,41508,00.html

More on Emtage's suggestion that his prior art on searching would invalidate AltaVista's claims.

Search Engine Creator: AltaVista Patents Bogus, Jan. 31, 2001,1928,2001_576031,00.html

Longer interview with Emtage, on the AltaVista claims.

Patent may let Lycos license spiders, Sept. 2, 1997,4,13881,00.html

Sound familiar? "Anyone on the Internet using smart spidering technology is potentially an infringer," according to Lycos's chief scientist, Dr. Michael Mauldin. "We're going to be looking into what our competitors' spiders do. Obviously, requesting royalties is one of the options open to us."

Search Engines and Legal Issues

See the "Patents" section for other articles about search engines claiming patents.

A History of Search Engines

By author Wes Sonnenreich, this covers the early days of search engines on the Internet.