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Google wins patent for search results page design

Intellectual-property lawyers say there's no need to fret about infringement lawsuits unless sites are veritable copies.

The design of Google's search results page earned U.S. patent protection this week, bringing the total number of patents held by the search giant to some three dozen.

Design Patent No. 533,561, awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday, covers "the ornamental design for a graphical user interface" as shown in several screen shots (click for PDF) of the Mountain View, Calif.-based company's search results pages.

The screen shots depict lists of the company's search results, with blocks of news-related and sponsored advertising links at the top. A graphic of the word Google, spelled out with multiple o's corresponding to the number of pages of search results returned, is centered at the bottom of the page.

According to Patent Office records, Google applied for the patent on March 26, 2004, not long before it filed to go public.

Some critics were quick to pounce on the patent award as yet more evidence that software patents have spiraled out of control.

But the patent procured by Google isn't actually a software patent, intellectual-property attorneys explained. It's a design patent, which means it covers only the visual look of an invention, as opposed to a "utility" patent, which covers the functions an invention performs.

"In fact, this is fairly narrow protection only for the ornamental look of Google's result pages," said Daniel Tysver, a Minnesota-based patent lawyer who runs the resource site Bitlaw, which focuses on intellectual-property law and the Internet.

Distinguishing between the look and the function of an invention isn't always easy. But imagine that you're seeking a patent for a wine glass. If it's simply a combination of glass stem and bowl that has been done many times before, it would not be eligible for a patent. But if there is some sort of unique, fanciful etching on the glass, then it could theoretically be patented if that design feature is "inseparable from the article to which it is applied and cannot exist alone."

The question of what makes a patent too obvious to merit protection, which the U.S. Supreme Court is currently mulling, applies to design patents as well as utility patents. The distinction with design patents is perhaps even more fuzzy, said Philip Mann, a Seattle-based patent attorney and author of the IP Litigation Blog.

"It's one of those 'you know it when you see it' standards that's very hard to articulate," Mann said in a telephone interview.

But Google's competitors need not worry about falling prey to costly lawsuits yet. That's because it's typically not easy for patent holders to win suits against alleged infringers of their designs, Mann said. Generally, the legal standard is that the accused infringer would have to employ a design that is "substantially the same" as the patent holder's.

In the search giant's case, that means "you more or less have to copy in slavish detail the Google interface," Mann said. "If you're dumb enough to do that, then why shouldn't you be sued?"

Google representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. According to patent office filings, the company already holds five other design patents related to graphical user interfaces, including that of its Froogle shopping listings.