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Google's Newest Patent: The Browser Search Highlight Button [Update]

You might think that Google (GOOG) has become a favorite punching bag of intellectual property lawyers. Microsoft (MSFT) and Apple (AAPL) both indirectly targeted the company via patent infringement suits against such Android handset vendors as Motorola (MOT) and HTC. Oracle sued Google directly for patent and copyright infringement. And now, Google ally Myriad group and Oracle sue each other over Java licensing.

And yet, the companies that do the targeting should be wary. Over time, Google has focused on patenting technology -- such as online advertising and automated content -- that is basic to doing business on the Web. So competitors and their business partners could be at risk, should the search giant decide to take action.

And today, Google added to its list of patents the "highlight all" button for browser-based searches, a popular utility that you can find in many software packages, including Windows. [Update: The button has to be in a toolbar. However, given that search and highlighting are usually combined in a toolbar, that isn't much of a restriction.]

In patent fights, usually two companies have at each other with their protected property in the same areas of technology. But there's nothing sacrosanct about that strategy. A good negotiation tactic could be to show how an important activity of a company or its largest customers could face potential disruption should a patent holder have to continue defending itself in an unrelated area.

Google's latest patent is number 7,853,586, titled Highlighting occurrences of terms in documents or search results. The filing history would give coverage back to December 15, 1999. Here is the first independent claim:

A device, comprising: a memory to store instructions; and a processor to execute the instructions in the memory to: provide a tool bar within a web browser application window, the tool bar including a button, for activating a highlighting operation, and an input box, present a document within the web browser application window, receive a search term within the input box of the tool bar after presenting the document within the web browser application window, receive selection of the button to activate the highlighting operation after receiving the search term within the input box, change, without user intervention and in response to receiving the selection of the button, a characteristic of the search term in the document, presented within the web browser application window, to form a modified document, and present the modified document, where an occurrence of the search term, within the modified document, has the changed characteristic.
Although this seems incredibly specific, it's far broader than the Google toolbar. Given that Microsoft has argued in the past how browser technology is so intrinsically tied into Windows, how would it argue that Windows Explorer isn't a special purpose Web browser? Here's an example from a Windows XP help search:

Windows 7 has something similar. Not all browsers use this mechanism. For example, I tested both Safari and Opera, which highlight all terms but without a button to do so. However, Firefox -- a popular browser that competes with Google Chrome -- does:

You can even find a potentially infringing use in the FeedDemon RSS reader:

This isn't an attempt at an exhaustive list, but more an indication of how such functions are taken for granted and, as a result, can become targets for later litigation.

As far as I know, Google hasn't sued other companies often -- if at all -- alleging patent infringement. However, it's not as though Google has refrained from starting intellectual property-related suits, either. Maybe Google has used a strategy all along of working to gain patents that others can't help but trip over if they're on the Web and, once it has enough that gain patents, using the various combinations as hammers on any of its competitors.


Image: user lusi, site standard license.
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