Google has patented the idea of search add-ons, which is eerily similar to an idea I was touting as a way for Yahoo to catch up. My thought was to have Yahoo partner with the 1000 or so independent search engines by letting them be “widgets” that were accessible from the Yahoo general search. Google’s idea is to allow:
third-party content providers could enable specialized searches on general-purpose search sites.
They do this using what they call “One-Boxes.” These are special boxes that appear in the general search results that show the result of a specialized search. So far they have a list of recommended add-ons, and you can add them yourself if they’re developed according to plan. This is the search engine equivalent of Amazon’s all-too-obvious 1-click patent.
The idea that this idea is non-obvious and deserves a patent is troubling. Software has allowed plug-ins to add functionality in various ways since the beginning of time. Sticking a plug-in capability into a search engine is useful, but it isn’t rocket science. The patent system is sold as encouraging innovation, but it seems to me it usually has the opposite effect. Big companies and patent trolls are almost always the beneficiaries. The patent system’s asymmetric costs mean that its cheap and easy to get a patent and punitively expense to defend against an infringement suit let alone overturn a bogus patent.
There are certainly cases where it is very expensive to innovate. Developing a new medical drug is a wonderful example. But shouldn’t patentability be tied somehow to the difficulty of creating the thing and less to the serendipity of who applies for a patent on a totally obvious and easily implemented idea first?
At the rate Google is filing for patents on stuff like this, I predict we will see Google’s “do no evil” motto get seriously bollixed up in the patent world.
No sooner did I file this than I read Amazon is losing a lot of their claims from the 1-click patent. Maybe there’s hope yet. Maybe folks just have to get organized and more proactive about filing for these re-examinations. It would be great to think there is a way to mobilize and help the system to police itself more automatically.