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Winston, Katz Sue Ask Jeeves

AI Lab Researchers Attempt to Enforce Natural Language Patent

By Satwiksai Seshasai

Ask Jeeves, Inc., owner of the question-and-answer based Internet search engine <> has made plans to defend a lawsuit filed by two MIT professors.

The suit, filed in U. S. District Court in Boston, charges the company with infringing on two patents held by Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Patrick H. Winston ’65 and Boris Katz, a researcher at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The professors are demanding that Ask Jeeves stop using and licensing the technology, and requests damages and royalty payments.

Ask Jeeves’ Director of Corporate Communications Heather Staples said that all of the technology used in their service was developed by the company. “A complaint has been served,” said Staples, “and based upon a review by counsel, we believe the charges are without merit.”

Katz has refused comment until the case has been settled.

A natural language search engine

The primary service offered by Ask Jeeves, is a question-and-answer-based search engine. The service accepts requests in natural language, as opposed to traditional keyword-based search engines.

“First, the question is tokenized to find key terms, then the question is parsed for word meaning by semantic and syntantic networks that were built by Ask Jeeves,” said Staples.

The service also has the ability to comprehend new slang every day. “For example, after multiple requests for ‘Spice Girls’ the service will learn the distinction between the popular music group and a request for information on the keywords ‘girls’ and ‘spice,’” said Staples.

After the question is tokenized, it is reorganized into a structure compatible with question templates developed by Ask Jeeves, said Staples. At this point the service provides the user with a set of potential locations for the answer to their question.

Although the company does not currently hold any patents for this technology, Staples said the company has recently applied for a patent. The patent will only cover its Grammar Template Query System. “The big dilemma with any patent is when you patent something, you disclose everything.”

The two patents which are held by Katz and Winston include the use of natural language searching to retrieve text and database material. A patent filed in 1994 describes “converting natural language queries to structured form, matching the structured form query against stored annotations and retrieving database subdivisions connected to matched annotations.”

TLO’s role uncertain

Lori Pressman, assistant director of the Technology Licensing Office, said “the TLO provides reasonable assistance and counsel [to professors in such cases.]”

“In general, the TLO is responsible for licensing patents that MIT owns,” said Pressman. MIT retains the ownership of all patents granted for funded research, and inventors receive one-third of all royalties received from licenses.

Until 1980, patents for federally funded research, including most university research, were held by the federal government. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 gave universities the right to retain patents developed at their institutions. This law also gives inventors the responsibility to “pro-actively protect the public from the misuse and nonuse of patented technology,” said Pressman.

“A patent is a monopoly granted by the government, giving the owner the exclusive right to use [an invention]” said Pressman. “The purpose is to encourage forward-looking thinking and high risk ideas ... with some financial reward.”

Pressman is not certain what the TLO’s role will be in the suit filed by Winston and Katz.

Staples is unclear about how long it will take to settle the case. “These types of things last a long time,” she said.

Ask Jeeves, Inc. was founded in 1996, and the website was launched a year later. The company also provides the corporate service of licensing its software for corporations to develop a custom question-and-answer search engine for their own sites.