AltaVista in search patent threat

Portal claims rights over basic search technology

Internet search portal AltaVista is reportedly threatening to issue lawsuits against companies using Internet search technologies that it has patented.

AltaVista was awarded four patents covering search techniques 13 November including one covering a method of indexing Web sites that is used by most search engines on the Internet. It owns a total of 38 patents.

David Wetherell, chief executive of CMGI, AltaVista's parent company, told Internet World US magazine that Altavista would defend its patent rights aggressively. "We believe that virtually everyone out there who indexes the web is in violation of at least several of [AltaVista's] key patents," he said.

A spokeswoman from AltaVista's UK offices was unable to say which companies could face lawsuits.

AltaVista's legal threats will increase ongoing debate over the extent to which companies can patent fundamental technologies. In June last year British Telecommunications faced controversy after claiming it owned the patent for another fundamental Internet technology, hyperlinks. Last month it issued a lawsuit against US Internet service provider Prodigy over this patent.

The European Commission is currently debating whether to bring its regulations in line with the US and change regulations preventing the patenting of basic software processes. Critics are concerned that software patenting stifles innovation and leaves companies facing legal action. The EC is expected to make a decision in March.

"This is another fine example of what will happen if we allow software patents in Europe," says Stefane Fermigier, a representative of EuroLinux, which is campaigning against changing European patent law. Fermigier says that this sort of legal threat could stop innovation in the business place and might force independent open source software projects to shut down.

Another opponent of software patenting, the Association for the Promotion of a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), recently put together a site showing some of the software patents already granted or pending in Europe.

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