With ever-growing collections of electronic resources, libraries desire technologies that simplify the search process. One of the hottest technologies around today involves applications that provide a single interface to search multiple resources. Called by various terms—metasearch, federated search, or broadcast search—this type of technology helps libraries and other organizations provide searchers with easy-to-use interfaces so they can search many different electronic resources simultaneously.
Thus sales of metasearch applications, link resolvers, and related products have grown to become a significant part of the library automation economy. Because almost all of the library automation companies now offer a metasearch product, libraries can choose from a number of them. But at least two companies--Webfeat and MuseGlobal--develop metasearch technologies as their core business. The technology developed by these two companies underlies the metasearch products offered by many library automation vendors. Dynix, The Library Corporation, EOS International, and Follett Software Company each integrate technology from Webfeat. Those using Muse Global include Sirsi, Innovative VTLS, Mandarin Library Automation, and Endeavor Information Systems. Ex Libris and Fretwell-Downing Informatics developed their own metasearch technology. Sales of metasearch applications, link resolvers, and related products have grown to become a significant part of the library automation economy.
The realm of metasearch brings to the fore a number of technical issues that require cooperation among the stakeholders to resolve. The National Information Standards Organization (NISO) established a Metasearch Initiative in April 2003 to facilitate the development of standards, practices, or guidelines that will be of mutual benefit to those that develop technology and the community of publishers of information resources that these technologies exploit. To date, the NISO Metasearch Initiative has not resulted in the development of a formal standard.
In this context of a rapidly expanding segment of the industry, Webfeat announced that has been awarded a patent covering several key components of metasearch technology.
United States Patent and Trademark Office awarded Webfeat patent number 6,807,539, dated October 19, 2004. The patent focuses its claims on the session management and authentication components of a metasearch system, but also describes the broader methods of searching multiple resources or databases. The final patent application was filed on September 23, 2003; an earlier version of the patent application was filed April 27, 2001.
Todd Miller, founder and President of Webfeat, emphasized that his company was the first to solve the most difficult aspects of metasearch, that of the developing technology that performs authentication into restricted databases and managing the session. “The field of competitors in the market today did not exist at the time of the original patent application”, according to Miller. “The claims in the patent are specific to authentication and session management and are not especially broad. The original patent application made broader claims that were pared down in what was awarded.”
Having the patent will bring benefits to Webfeat. Now that it has been awarded, the company can proceed with pursuing new opportunities to license its technology. Prior to the patent award, Webfeat had licensed its technology to a number of other companies, including Serials Solutions, Thompson Scientific, Infotrieve AFX (Article Finder eXtreme), as well as the library automation companies listed above.
Not surprisingly, others in the industry voice a strong concern over the award of the patent. In the short time elapsed since the announcement of the patent, none of the companies with competing technologies have announced any specific plans in reaction to the patent award. While there is speculation that the one or more of the competing interests may formally challenge the patent, none have taken specific action; doing so would be a long and expensive process.
Patents are not commonplace in the library arena, though they do exist. OCLC, for example, owns seven patents issued between 1983 and 1996. In 2003 a patent application related to OpenURL caused, and continues to cause concern. This one has also stirred controversy. Among Webfeat's competitors, there seems to be an almost universal belief that the patent should have not been issued and that it will be disruptive to the industry. Most of the comments on the patent focus on the issue of prior art, asserting a body of projects and systems that have used the technologies claimed in the patent going back at least a decade. Another concern involves how the patent might be used should its ownership be transferred to a company with more aggressive intentions. Patents are transferable property. If Webfeat is acquired or sells the patent, it could be used more aggressively than Webfeat itself might have intended.
The library automation industry has a long history of developing open standards as the basis for competing products in the same arena. These standards provide opportunities for interoperability and protect libraries from any given company's proprietary technology. But these standards do not preclude vigorous competition. It is yet to be seen how this patent will affect the development of standards related to metasearch and whether there will be any significant business implications between Webfeat and its competitors because of this patent.