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Northeastern University Sues Google Over Patent 159

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the who-isn't-suing-google-these-days dept.
kihbord writes to mention that Boston's Northeastern University and Waltham, Mass. based company Jarg have brought suit against Google for apparently infringing on a distributed database system developed by Kenneth Baclawski. "The patent describes a distributed database system that breaks search queries into fragments and distributes them to multiple computers in a network to get faster results. The patent was assigned to Northeastern University, which licensed it exclusively to Jarg, according to the lawsuit, filed last Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas."
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Northeastern University Sues Google Over Patent

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  • by ErikTheRed (162431) on Monday November 12, 2007 @05:57PM (#21328715) Homepage
    Too bad we can't apply the Stupid Filter [slashdot.org] to the patent system.
  • by GrEp (89884) <crb002&gmail,com> on Monday November 12, 2007 @05:59PM (#21328737) Homepage Journal
    It looks like Bayh-Dole strikes again: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayh-Dole_Act [wikipedia.org] .
  • The lawyer's firm would not take up the case unless it was paid in advance, and it took Belanger two and a half years to find a company willing to pursue the case on a contingency basis, the Globe reported.
    and then ask to be paid UP FRONT for their services to litigate something THEY found whilst trolling the patent office archives..

    Guess what they say about lawyers being greedy bastages ain't far off the mark...
  • Interesting Dates (Score:3, Informative)

    by nursegirl (914509) on Monday November 12, 2007 @06:01PM (#21328789) Journal

    FTA, the patent was filed on Dec 2, 1997. From Google's Corporate History [google.com] page, they describe setting up their first data centre in 1998.

    Still absolutely ridiculous that this idea was patentable, and that the patent infringement case could happen this late.

    • Re:Interesting Dates (Score:5, Interesting)

      by bstone (145356) on Monday November 12, 2007 @07:01PM (#21329565)
      Aside from obviousness, the idea has been around forever. nCube built a business around it in the early 80's.
      • Well, in the early 1980's, this was state of the art and obvious. But with the influx of PHP-writing barristas and C programming college drop-outs into the computer industry, standards have clearly gone down to the point that it now meets standards for patentability.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      FTA, the patent was filed on Dec 2, 1997

      It was filed on October 5, 1994. December 2, 1997 is the issue date.

  • Oh come on (Score:2, Funny)

    by ILuvRamen (1026668)
    Come on, people. It's a fairly strange, unique idea that they came up with that I don't think anyone had done before and they were actually using the patent by leasing it out to someone or whatever you want to call it. That's not really patent trolling. Trolling is coming up with some ridiculous idea and sitting on it so you can sue someone when they try to do it
  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Monday November 12, 2007 @06:06PM (#21328853) Journal
    A a link to the patent, according to the article [uspto.gov] with the description:

    A distributed computer database system including a front end computer and a plurality of computer nodes interconnected by a network into a search engine. A query from a user is transmitted to the front end computer which forwards the query to one of the computer nodes, termed the home node, of the search engine. The home node fragments the query and hashes the fragments of query to create an index by which the hashed query fragments are transmitted to one or more nodes on the network. Each node on the network which receives a hashed fragment uses the fragment of the query to perform a search on its respective database. The results of the searches of the local databases are then gathered by the home node.
    However, I submitted this story yesterday and found a list of patents by that professor with that company [uspto.gov] and suspected a more interesting patent [uspto.gov]. From that description:

    A distributed computer database system connected to a network, e.g., the Internet or on an intranet, indexes interests of agents that have registered with the system, examines information objects, for example, that reside on the network, and, responsive to a match with the registered agents' interests, specifies to the agents the relevant information objects.
    It's your decision whether or not he's a patent troll but that professor seems to have many patents. I fear that the future only holds more and more patents being acquired by professors. I do not think this was the norm 10 years ago but my professor at George Mason University gave me a very frank lecture one day that essentially spelled out that the university rewards them for these things and the university is building a portfolio. What the states pay a professor is not much compared to what they could be earning in the field so he really has no choice.

    I congratulated him on the several patents he just acquired. Although I can't say I was very happy about his recent moves.
    • by antibryce (124264)
      One of the interesting things I've noticed over the past 10+ years of working in IT is that more and more companies are asking questions like "How many patents do you have?" on job applications.

      Combine with the graduate degree requirement that's slowly coming into practice and a BS/BA doesn't seem to be worth much nowadays.

      • by Ash Vince (602485) on Monday November 12, 2007 @07:10PM (#21329681) Journal

        One of the interesting things I've noticed over the past 10+ years of working in IT is that more and more companies are asking questions like "How many patents do you have?" on job applications.
        But the answer will almost always be zero as the patents would be owned by whoever was paying you when you came up with the idea. Even if you come up with the idea while studying it will just be the uni that owns it.

        The fact is that the patent system has long been designed so that you need money to enjoy its protection, people who are unemployed very rarely have enough money to file a patent and most contracts of employment sign any patent rights over to your employer.
        • But the answer will almost always be zero as the patents would be owned by whoever was paying you when you came up with the idea.

          It is true that patents are usually assigned to the employer (i.e. the employer holds the IP rights), but the names on the patents are still those of the individual(s) that invented the work. As such, you can list patents on you CV, and as the GP points out, quite a few employers now look at patent authoring as evidence of creativity and thus value it highly.

      • by mikael (484)
        That's what all the admissions tutors are saying now, "A BS/BA is the high-school diploma of the 21st Century" (podcast interview, about 17:24 into the interview). [financialaidpodcast.com]

        Then you see three page mathematics papers being published which mention that the technique discussed is being patented, even if it just involves a couple of matrix-vector equations. And the paper will have around six or eight names as the listed authors.
    • by greg_barton (5551) *

      I fear that the future only holds more and more patents being acquired by professors.

      Cool. Spread that meme. If more people start thinking that then the patent system will finally get fixed. When you can blame something on an icon of the left wing world (elite, ivory tower professors, for instance) then something gets done about it. Nothing motivates right wingers more, and left wingers are always happy to doubt themselves or eat their own.
  • Prior art (?) (Score:5, Informative)

    by geophile (16995) <jao@@@geophile...com> on Monday November 12, 2007 @06:07PM (#21328859) Homepage
    Breaking a query into pieces and evaluating them at nodes containing a subset of the database has been written about since the 1970s. I read about it in grad school back then. Whether that's actually the thing actually patented by jarg is an entirely separate question. If it is, the PTO has screwed up once again. If it isn't, then perhaps there is a deeper similarity that TFA isn't describing.
  • by quo_vadis (889902) on Monday November 12, 2007 @06:08PM (#21328875) Journal
    I know the initial urge of a small company suing a larger one (especially a darling of slashdot such as Google) will have a lot of people yelling patent troll, but this may not be the case. The fact that this is a company from a university professor means that the company very likely has a working product that has been derived from several years worth of research. To those who are not used to the American system of research at the university level (for Professors and PhDs), any researcher can apply for a patent on the research they have been doing in the lab. The patent is usually issued in the name of the university or jointly in the name of the researcher and the university. There is usually an exclusive licencee for the patent. This forces the university to allow the researcher to have first dibs on licensing the technology he worked on exclusively to some company he decides. This is done as university's usually take anywhere from 50-75% of all royalties generated by the patent as research was done on university property. Thus many profs usually spin off companies and sit on the board of directors for the company and earn a supplementary income this way.

    So , heres how it works :
    1. Do research on some area.
    2. Get funding from $Federal Agency of choice
    3. Make a few students get PhD's doing research on this topic
    4. Go to the office of tech licensing on campus and draw up patent
    4.a Make sure the exclusive license clause is in the patent
    5. ??? -> Form company and sit on board of directors
    6. Profit.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by MozeeToby (1163751)
      Yeah, but on the other hand, sitting on a patent for years and years while you know its being violated by numerous other companies IS patent trolling.
      • So what? Google owns a load of patents themselves. Do you think they would let it slide if someone else was using their patented technology? Just because everyone at Slashdot is infatuated with Google doesn't mean they shouldn't have play by the same rules they themselves make others play by.
    • Maybe I would agree and not call troll if they didn't freaking file in Texas. What filing in Texas gets them is a jury that's sympathetic to patent plaintiffs.
      • It's tough to find a judge that 1. is familiar with patent cases and 2. does not cringe with disgust when s/he sees your patent complaint. A lot of judges hate them and do them incorrectly. Yes, the Texas court is pro-patent-plaintiff but if you owned a patent and wanted to sue over it, you can be damn sure you'd want a judge who knows what he's doing.
  • Ok, we have this, um, network, we'll call it a network. ARPANET? Sure. And we'll take a job an run it on multiple machines to get a faster answer? Yeah, that will be great. Now, what do we do with it? IBM says play chess...

    Seriously, isn't this pretty much the definition of a distributed computing job? What the hell do they teach at this school? Punch cards? It's not just patent trolling, it's embarrassingly ignorant.
    • by SL Baur (19540)

      And we'll take a job an run it on multiple machines to get a faster answer?

      Wrong. That's not what's covered by the patent.

      IBM says play chess...

      Now, you're more on the right track. Before there was Deep Blue, there was Ken Thompson's Belle. Belle the machine, as versus Belle the program distributed as "/usr/games/chess" on earlier Unix systems, did have a similar architecture compared to the one patented. The query, "What move shall I play next?" was broken up into pieces and handed off to subordinated dedicated computer search chips which searched different portions of the position tree. Unfort

  • If the courts of Marshall Texas are so popular for patent trolls, and the way you justify jurisdiction is to claim that "services are available there", blacklist every Marshall Texas ISP's IP range in that area.

    If one of those IP addresses tries to access your service, put up a nice, static HTML page declaring that it due to the local court's ignorance of patent issues and the resulting popularity of those courts for patent litigation, it isn't a good business decision to provide services to that area.

    Have
    • by Kristoph (242780)
      I have a patent on that so unless you pay me a royalty I'll see you in Marshall Texas. :-)

      ]{
  • The Supreme Court [bloomberg.com] in the states has ruled that patents that are combinations of existing inventions or would have come about anyway are not valid. Geez! Didn't Sun Tzu demonstrate the 'divide and conquer' method like millenia ago? Just because you combine it with a computer network does not make it new or novel.
  • by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Monday November 12, 2007 @06:33PM (#21329185)
    I thought Google was highly secret in what they did and how they did it. The way I've read this, it seems like a pishing expedition of Google needing to prove that they don't violate the patent, and not that there is yet any proof that they do violate it.

    And then there's always the specter of Prior Art raising its unwanted head.

    Have these guys ever built such a database system themselves for sale?

    • by SL Baur (19540)

      The way I've read this, it seems like a pishing expedition of Google needing to prove that they don't violate the patent, and not that there is yet any proof that they do violate it.

      You don't read very well.

      The patent was filed in 1994, ie. before internet search engines.

      The inventor wrote the book, several of them from the looks of the references, on how to make internet search engines before any existed.

      Distributed batch jobs are not what is covered in the patent. They are not how Google implements its search engine either.

      Executive summary: Google is almost certainly using technology covered by this patent and will settle out of court, quickly. And yes, Microsoft and Yahoo! are

  • I cant even find any logic to explain why this can not be patented, and many people did similar things a prior. Not due to complexity, but due to simplicity of the issue.
  • In my postgrad years in the early 80's I worked for a now defunct computer company that often supplied minicomputers for Government departments. The patent is an exact copy of how we did information searches across a network.Honestly there is no other way of doing this type of search efficiently back then and I dare say the same method pre dates my early years within th computer industry. Think about it, user enters search criteria into stand alone PC/Terminal then it is passed onto a primary node minicompu
  • by The Empiricist (854346) on Monday November 12, 2007 @06:46PM (#21329371)

    The /. posts labeling Northeastern University as a patent troll or claiming that the patent should not have issued have been posted too quickly to be credible assessments of the morality of this suit and the worthiness of the patent. The current Wikipedia definition [wikipedia.org] is that a patent troll is "a person or company that enforces its patents against one or more alleged infringers in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic." If the patent was obtained through lawful and ethical means, is valid, and is infringed on by Google, then how is it "unduly aggressive or opportunistic" for Northeastern University to enforce the patent?

    Some argue that a patent troll is merely a person or company that seeks to enforce a patent but does not practice the patent. Maybe Northeastern University is not practicing the patent. Then again, the mission of most universities seems to be conducting research, not applying and commercializing research. Licensing research to companies that can and will apply and commercialize that research is one way that universities fund additional research. Maybe universities should have to give all of their research away for free. But currently they do not. And it seems unfair to fault Northeastern for exercising its rights while not pushing the scope of its mission.

    Given how quickly Northeastern was accused of being a patent troll, and given that there was no discussion about the proper role of universities or any real analysis of the worthiness of the patent (which was filed in 1994...almost 4 years before Google was founded), it seems likely that some people consider a patent troll to be any person who tries to enforce any patent rights.

    Maybe Northeastern is acting like a patent troll. And maybe their patent is worthless. But it takes more than a quick glance at the 20-page issued patent or the 6-page complaint against Google to come up with a reasonable assessment of these issues.

    Some analysis of the complaint would at least show that it doesn't look like Northeastern really knows the details of Google's search infrastructure:

    13. A part of its search engine services, Google uses one or more hashing algorithms.
    14. As part of its search engine services, Google returns search results responsive to user queries.
    ...
    16. Google maintains and operators clusters of networked computers to provide search engine services to users.
    ...
    26. Google has directly and/or indirectly infringed on one or more claims of the '593 patent, and Google is continuing such infringement by practicing or causing others to practice one or more of the inventions claimed in the '593 patent. For example, Google makes, uses, imports, sells and/or offers for sale search engine services and systems that infringe or that are used in ways that infringe one or more claims of the '593 patent in this district and elsewhere in the United States.

    Then again, Google's code is not open to the world. If it was, more detailed analysis would be possible. How can Northeastern try to get access to the code? By suing and demanding it as part of discovery. Does this make Northeastern a patent troll? Maybe. But the alternative (aside from discarding the patent system altogether, at least for software innovations) is a system that rewards patent infringers who keep their source code inaccessible to patent holders.

    • Google's distributed search stuff is well documented for years, why would they wait up until now?
    • This is /. dude. Anyone who even thinks of even applying for a patent is automatically a patent troll. You must be new here.
      • by timeOday (582209)
        So tell us, what here is worthy of the patent? If it's simply parallel search, then I don't think it can be considered valid. Even RAID0 would fall under this description.
        • The only way to tell what the patent covers is to read the claims and I have not done that.
        • by SL Baur (19540)

          So tell us, what here is worthy of the patent?

          Internet Search engines. The professor whose name is on the patent invented them. Really.

          If it's simply parallel search

          Um no. I know this is /., but did the thought of reading the patent or the article ever occur to you before you wrote that?

          Out of the patent articles I've seen on /., nearly every one of them contains something clever enough IMO to invalidate 99.9% of the ideas posted here as "prior art". This is clearly one of them.

          This guy wrote the book on how to make efficient Internet Search engines and patented it before any

    • by Trogre (513942)
      If the patent was obtained through lawful and ethical means, is valid, and is infringed on by Google, then how is it "unduly aggressive or opportunistic" for Northeastern University to enforce the patent?

      This patent cannot possibly have been obtained through ethical means, since any ethical patent process would never have granted it in the first place.

    • by RomulusNR (29439)
      First, yeah, yeah, NU gets a lot of shit, some deserved but not a lot.

      Second, actually, NU does place some momentum on turning research discoveries / inventions into real-world use, having built a landmark building on campus in 1998 for just that purpose (the Egan Technology Transfer Center). However, despite noteworthy work in computer science (e.g. this is the second NU prof to appear in a /. headline in as many years), NU focuses more on traditional engineering than on CS.
    • Patent protection for software is as inherently inappropriate as patent protection for genes. Patent protection for software only happened AFTER software became suddenly a big deal, the software industry has grown in spite of patent encumbrance, and I have yet to see a case where patent protection for software has "advanced the arts and sciences".

      Once you realize this, then it becomes clear why NEU is being demonized. It's because they are acting like a demon.
      • Patent protection for software is as inherently inappropriate as patent protection for genes. Patent protection for software only happened AFTER software became suddenly a big deal, the software industry has grown in spite of patent encumbrance, and I have yet to see a case where patent protection for software has "advanced the arts and sciences".

        In the '70s there were those who believed that copyright protection was inappropriate for software, even questioning its basic need:

        It appears that the existing

        • by argent (18001)
          In the '70s there were those who believed that copyright protection was inappropriate for software, even questioning its basic need

          I'm sure there were, but speaking as someone who was actually writing software in that era I can assure you they were such a tiny part of the dialog that they can be ignored. This was also the era in which patent protection for software was first seriously discussed, and when Bell Labs donated what turned out to be the first US software patent (the UNIX setuid bit) into the publ
          • At least one company [uspto.gov] seems to show an interest in using the patent system to build a niche for itself. And that company seem to produce a lot of innovations [fastcompany.com] that arguably advance the arts and sciences.

            Innovating and seeking patent rights may be completely independent. Sure, there are potential strategies [informationweek.com] that might leverage the patent system. But, like any business strategy, how can anyone be sure success comes from the strategy or from other factors. You never know for sure that success was in spite o

            • by argent (18001)
              At least one company [Google] seems to show an interest in using the patent system to build a niche for itself.

              You admit that you can't create any kind of causal link between Google's patent portfolio and their business model, and if you're going to argue that it's not their active use of the technologies that they have invented but the fact that they've patented them that has made them successful, you know perfectly well what kind of response you'll get.

              it is hard to prove that a strategic tool, such as so
    • by eison (56778)
      If the patent fails the 'skilled in the art' test to the point of 'a 5 year old could figure it out' or 'patent was created via the Super Sekrit "...with a computer!" fortune-cookie patent creation system', then it's morally questionable to even have applied for the patent in the first place, and reprehensible to attempt to use it. Thus, they are a patent troll.
  • by kurtis25 (909650)
    Let me get this straight... Public university means my tax dollars go to pay the guy who got this patent which means I should get money when he wins. Sue on. I kid but seriously you know it's a problem when a university is getting into the trolling game whatever happened to for the public good.
    • by raddan (519638)
      NEU is a private university. But I agree with your main point, and I think that even private universities should contribute to the public good. Software patents seem antithetical to that idea.
    • by Jahz (831343)
      Northeastern is a completely private institution. It gives back to the community in other ways... so likely some small part of the settlement would end up back in the Boston/Roxbury community. However, it really doesn't matter since NEU is essentially a private, for-profit corporation.

      I would say that the primary way NEU and all the other private universities contribute back to the community is by offering scholarships to underprivileged American students. Thereby those students (and their children) are e
  • by raddan (519638) on Monday November 12, 2007 @07:04PM (#21329587)
    The fact that a university is behind this patent lawsuit is the most disturbing part to me. I probably have no real basis for this opinion, since I only spent three semesters at the school (I transferred to another school), but I had the overwhelming feeling that Northeastern U's primary concern was: bring in the money. That's why I transferred to UMass Amherst. In my experience, Northeastern was overpriced, and filled with students and teachers who just couldn't give a damn about academics. UM Amherst's admission standards were certainly lower than NEU's, but I found that the students who wanted to be there were really motivated, and that the teaching, in general, was outstanding.

    That's not to say that NEU didn't/doesn't have some strong departments, nor do I mean to disparage anyone who is presently working their ass off there. I just didn't see it. This article strengthens my opinion of NEU as essentially "for profit" and not "for education".
  • There are few groundbreaking solutions to database scaling that are worthy of a patent. Patents are granted for this kind of crap because the Patent Office is basically working on commission, and has employees who are more likely to be impressed by lawyerspeak mind numbing detail than an understanding of the originality of the underlying methods.

    Perhaps whatever protection offered by the law for software should be more similar to a copyright. Many smart people can solve a particular difficult problem, and

  • Prior art? (Score:3, Informative)

    by kbahey (102895) on Monday November 12, 2007 @07:17PM (#21329759) Homepage
    Well, there were products on the market in the 1980s that did break down the queries to several CPUs.

    One such example is Teradata [wikipedia.org], which had the database tables partitioned among many CPUs (done automatically on insert), each with its storage.

    A query would be split automatically to all the CPUs, and each would fetch and return the rows matching the criteria in its part of the table.

    The results are then combined from all CPUs and returned back to the application.

    Later the CPUs were just emulated in software, as hardware became more powerful.

    Prior art then ...
  • NCR Teradata does data retrieval based off chopping indexes into discrete pieces then storing those indexes in separate nodes. WalMart and others have used this. NCR started selling these around that time 2000 so design had to occur much earlier. Seems to me to be what's covered by the patent. Network could be IP or simply the data bus.

    So its likely this professor saw, heard, or smelled the process at some conference. Or from one of his grad students. Then painted proceeded to paint a Matisse abstract paten
    • by bunyip (17018)
      Teradata has been around a lot longer than that, I first wrote Teradata code at American Airlines in 1988.

      Alan.
      • Thanks Alan, I do think I also wrote some code in 1998. I loved Teradata because it let me query two years of everything sold at JCPenney in two and a half hours. IBM DB2, before MQSERIES, could only handle small bits of queries so that took several days to run then piecing the result sets together was a pain.

        Good luck with your work post AA.

        Then you remembering using Teradata in the 1998 timeframe does demonstrate that the professor is an idea grabber. Again, Teradata had to have been planned long before 1
    • Why did they file in Marshall, Texas, when neither Google, nor Northeastern is headquartered there?
    • Why did they wait 10 years to sue, when even the lawyer figured out that Google likely infringed? If infringement is that obvious, you would have thought that the inventor would have figured it out a long time ago.
    • Why aren't they suing the likes of Yahoo, Ask, etc... who likely use similar technology?

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