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Patent may let Lycos license spiders

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office green-lights a Lycos patent application for its indexing technology; the company could demand royalties from search engines using "intelligent" Net crawlers.

Lycos (LCOS) owns spiders.

The company seems to think so, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has basically given Lycos's patent application for its indexing technology--known as a "spider" because it crawls the Web and collects information used to build searchable databases--the green light with what's called a "notice of allowance."

It is not clear how broad the patent, if approved, could be, but Lycos representatives said it covers any Web indexing technology with criteria to find and index sites. If this holds true, then the company could demand royalties from any search engine using "intelligent" Web crawlers--anything that does more than simply go out and jump from link to link to index sites.

As an example of "intelligent" indexing, Lycos's spider catalogs Web pages by counting the number of links that point to them. Sites with lots of incoming links are considered more popular and are indexed at a higher priority than sites with few incoming links.

"Anyone on the Internet using smart spidering technology is potentially an infringer," according to Lycos's chief scientist, Dr. Michael Mauldin. "We're going to be looking into what our competitors' spiders do. Obviously, requesting royalties is one of the options open to us."

Maudlin said that the company has not yet targeted any competitors. At least one competitor disagreed with Lycos's patenting strategy.

"We've tried to develop our technology and keep it as our proprietary advantage [without filing for patents]," said Kevin Brown, director of marketing for Inktomi, which makes the engine that runs HotBot. "To build a crawler with our performance, you'd need a group of supercomputing scientists."

Another rival, Excite, said in a statement that its technology "predates" Lycos's spiders and should be unaffected by the patent: "We are confident in this position because spider programs are written in many different ways and because Lycos's 'claim' appears to address only their particular implementation of spider technology."

The patent, which Lycos filed for in 1994, has not officially been issued to Lycos and is not yet publicly available, and rivals including Excite and Inktomi said they would not make final judgements until examining the patent language. The transfer of the patent will occur in the next few weeks and is "just a matter of paperwork and paying the fee," according to Lycos spokeswoman Sarah Garnsey.

Lycos's stock was up 1-7/8 to close at 33 in trading today.