The doodles that Google puts out are pretty familiar to regular users. A recent one relates to Harry Houdini's 137th birthday, showing a cute cartoon of a suited magician in broken handcuffs. What users may not know is that this doodle stands patented. For a minute, when I first read that, I was pretty amused. “No way!” was my first reaction. However, I took a minute to investigate and sure enough, on March 22, Google was granted a patent titled “Systems and methods for enticing users to access a web site”.

I dreaded scrolling down to read the claims-section of the patent; however, this patent only had four claims. Claims are essentially the heart of a patent application, upon which legal rights are granted/disputed.

When I took away the legal language and the computer science language, all it translated to was a way by which Google gets to display special event logos on its site, modifying the Google logo (as they did for St. Patrick's day by turning it green) to suit the event and annotating the same with audio/video content as necessary.

Google as a company holds a lot of appeal to me, as an engineer. They have truly revolutionised engineering, in their realm of projects. Instead of taking the stand of “big company abuses patent system to serve its own ends”, I would like to analyse this from an objective standpoint, with an Indian context thrown in.

I dug a little deeper into the patent on doodles and asked a few people in the know about the history of the case. There were two rounds of examination comments from the US Patent office on this particular case. In the first round, the examiner said this was very similar to an older patent for an Attention Manager, which utilised the unused portion of a display to draw the user's attention to an event.

The original patent that Google filed had 27 claims and, after the first round of examination, they amended five claims to overcome the examiner's objection. The examiner sent another nice letter saying that two other patents were stating similar content (keeping in mind the amended claims). The USPTO sent a final-rejection in 2006 and called for a hearing. This led to Google cancelling the first 17 claims from the original document. The examiner was still not pleased and this led them to amend the claims yet again, with seven new claims. After two more rounds of communication, the USPTO finally allowed four claims. This patent was under prosecution for ten long years.

Looking at the Indian patents that Google has been granted, most of them are around their basic search technology, ad-words, targeted advertising and a smattering of other software patents. Among the patents that are still under prosecution in India, for Google, the subject matter is a bit scarier. One patent under prosecution filed in 2007 is titled Custom Search Engine with Indic Language Input.

Two years ago, I found myself caught in a heated debate with a local Bangalore search company about the value of patenting their software. There was some amusement on my part when I realised a week later that the owner was really trying to patent a mathematical equation that his 10-year-old son had come up with!

That detail aside, I remember thinking why I was arguing so hard on a Saturday evening, trying to convince this person about the value of his technology. Indic language input has been around for long. Popular examples of sites that utilised Indic language input date back to early 2000 with Shabdkosh.com and Quillpad.com. Quillpad currently continues to support such commercially viable sites as BigAdda.com, Rediffmail.com and IndiaTimes.com. On looking for patents from these companies, the portfolios are rather sparse.

A couple of the usual suspects inform this debate on what is patentable within the realm of software in India, including (a) A lack of information about examination procedures within the Indian Patent Office; (b) Unclear understanding of the precedent set by granted software patents within the Indian Patent Office; and (c) Misconceptions about the inherent value of patenting software and user-interfaces as opposed to copyrighting them.

Among the major technology giants, Microsoft, Google and Oracle have around 300 granted patents, and Microsoft alone has around 2,500 patents under prosecution in the Indian patent office. And the last time I checked, none of these companies were manufacturing diapers.

There is an urgent need to scrutinise what is truly patentable in order to sift through the reams of information presented in these instances. Smaller Indian companies need to think how best they can protect their technologies in order to remain competitive. The good news is, appeals within the Indian patent system are fast-tracked through the appellate board and hence the debate on intellectual property is definitely fast-changing in our times.

The author is the founder of PatNMarks, an Intellectual Property Consulting Firm and a faculty member in Computer Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology.

(This article was published on April 10, 2011)
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