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MIT Profs Sue Ask Jeeves Over Patent Use

By Nate P. Gray, Contributing Writer

Two MIT professors are asking, an Internet search engine, more than just where to find the cheapest airfares--they want to know if the company has stolen technology that they developed.

Last Thursday, MIT Professors Boris Katz and Patrick Winston filed suit in Massachusetts District Court against the California-based Ask Jeeves, Inc. for patent infringement.

The two scientists allege that technology used by the Internet search services, whose sites include,, and the telephone service Ask Jeeves's Corporate Answering Service, infringe upon two United States patents for coding issued to the two scientists in 1994 and 1995.

The professors are requesting "treble damages for willful infringement of the two patents and an injunction prohibiting Ask Jeeves from making, using or selling the Internet search products," according to a statement released by the professors' lawyers.

Ask Jeeves denies any wrongdoing, and is planning to fight the allegation full-force.

The patents in question contain coding information that makes Web searches easier by using a "natural language system," which allows users to input plain English sentences or questions to search Internet sites.

Common questions or phrases are stored in a computer database, and when a user asks a question that matches any of the descriptions, the appropriate information is called up. uses the same technology, the professors allege.

According to the Internet company's corporate Web site, Ask Jeeves is a company that allows Web surfers to conduct a search using "your native English, the language you use when conversing," making the Internet accessible for those not familiar with Web jargon.

Ask Jeeves, which licenses its technology to the Altavista search engine, was the first company to implement a question-answering service of this kind.

It maintains that its systems are independently developed.

"What they describe in their patents is fundamentally different from what we do," said company spokesperson Heather Staples. "We didn't buy any technology from someone and then create this system. Everything was developed at Ask Jeeves."

Both Katz and Winston are prominent researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence and natural language. Winston is the Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science at MIT, and Katz is a principal research scientist at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The professors are not the first to accuse Ask Jeeves of patent infringement. Last July, in a suit that is still pending, Mountain View's IPLearn LLC, a company that uses natural language queries, filed a similar patent infringement suit in Oakland, Calif. Ask Jeeves denied the accusation.

Financial wire services picked up the story Friday, and Ask Jeeves stock fell almost seven and a half dollars that day, closing at $118.50.

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