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Infoseek latest to get patent

Infoseek says it has received a patent for its method of searching multiple databases on the Web.

Search engine and Internet guide Infoseek (SEEK) said today it has received a patent for its method of searching multiple databases on the Web.

The announcement comes one week after search rival Lycos (LCOS) announced it was expecting to receive a patent for its own search methodology, but it remains to be seen whether patents will give either company an upper hand in the fiercely competitive Net search market.

Infoseek's patent covers technology that allows its search engine to use third-party engines to gather and collate information. An Infoseek search on "patents," for example, might reach a site that uses a different engine as its preferred search method. Infoseek will be able to trigger that third-party engine, take its results, and collate them with other results gathered simultaneously.

Wall Street reacted by bidding up the company's stock by about 13 percent.

Infoseek uses only a limited version of the technology at the moment but plans to fully implement it beginning next year, according to a company representative.

This "distributed search" method will be necessary as the sheer quantity of Internet content grows unmanageable for one company to collate, according to Infoseek chairman Steve Kirsch. But one rival disagrees.

"Distributed search is interesting technology, but it doesn't guarantee search results in well under a second," said Excite chief technology officer Graham Spencer. "You're relying on a lot of other companies to provide adequate hardware and bandwidth."

Excite applied for a patent for its own distributed search technology two years ago, but the company won't use it if and when the patent is granted because of its strategic direction, Spencer said.

Infoseek chairman Kirsch took issue with Excite's evaluation. "You can execute a distributed search just as fast as a regular search," he said. By setting the search for speed rather than relevance, a user would get back the results of the fastest search engine as soon as they were ready. Opting for speed, then, diminishes the ability of the distributed search to gather and collate search results simultaneously from various engines.

If Excite's CTO Spencer is wrong and distributed search gains in Internet popularity, Infoseek's patent could give the company an advantage, according to one intellectual property attorney.

Tim O'Hearn, a partner in the intellectual property practice of international firm Jones, Day, Reavis, & Pogue, agreed that if Infoseek's distributed searching is superior and distributed searching becomes the preferred method on the Net, the company's patent gives Kirsch a marketing advantage: "It would present a nice picture to potential customers, but all those pieces have to fall into place."

Last week, Lycos said it would look at its rivals' technologies to determine if they should be charging license fees, but it's still unclear whether the latest patents will result in infringement lawsuits. One analyst who follows the search market thinks lawsuits wouldn't be very fruitful to either Lycos or Infoseek.

"These are companies trying to grow quickly. It won't help either to sit in court and chew up resources trying to enforce their patents," said Abhishek Gami, vice president at Nesbitt Burns Securities. "In an emerging market like this, they'd rather be out selling their products."

If one of the companies does decide to go after royalties, it should be easier to make a case than with other software patent cases, according to O'Hearn.

"Net searching technologies should be more enforceable than most software patents because much of the software in use is widely distributed," he said.

If the companies are leaning on the patent news to boost stock prices, they've seen mixed results so far. Infoseek stock is at 9, up 1 in afternoon trading.

Lycos is at 31, down 2-1/4 from this morning and down slightly from its close of last Monday, the day it made its patent announcement. The stock went up 1-7/8 and closed at 33 that day, but the price has since fallen below the preannouncement price.