Google has been sued by a university and a start-up company in the US for allegedly infringing on a patented technology to run its online search service.

The suit was filed by Boston's Northeastern University and by Jarg, a private company in Waltham, Massachusetts, that specialises in distributed search technologies and one of whose co-founders, Kenneth Baclawski, is an associate professor at Northeastern.

The suit accuses Google of using a distributed database technology developed by Baclawski in its online service. The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and an injunction to prevent Google from further infringing on the patent, as well as royalty payments and damages.

The patent describes a distributed database system that breaks queries into fragments and distributes them to multiple computers in a network to get faster search results. The patent was assigned to Northeastern University, which licensed it exclusively to Jarg, according to the lawsuit, filed last Tuesday with the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

"The invention relates to a distributed computer database system which includes a front end computer and a plurality of computer nodes interconnected by a network," the patent reads. "The combination of computer nodes interconnected by the network operates as a search engine."

The patent, number 5,694,593, is dated 2 December, 1997, and can be viewed by searching the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Faster processing

Google also uses a distributed database system that breaks queries into multiple parts for faster processing, the lawsuit states. It notes that Google makes "99 per cent" of its revenue from advertising, and that the success of its business depends partly on the speed of its search results.

Jarg learned of the alleged infringement from a Boston-area lawyer who thought Google's search technology resembled that covered by the patent, said Jarg's president, Michael Belanger, according to a report in Saturday's Boston Globe newspaper. The lawyer's firm would not take up the case unless it was paid in advance, and it took Belanger two-and-a-half years to find another law firm willing to pursue the case on a contingency basis, the Globe reported.

Google said it was aware of the complaint and considers it to be "without merit," according to the report.

The Marshall Division of the Texas district court, where the suit was filed, is seen as a friendly venue for patent litigators. Although none of the parties in the case are based there, the lawsuit argues it is an appropriate venue for the case because Google provides services there.

No trial date has been set. The next stage will be for Google to respond to the lawsuit and for the court to decide whether a trial is warranted.

Northeastern is a private university known for its co-operative education programme, in which students do vocational work as part of their degree. Jarg develops an intellectual property suite called the Semantic Knowledge Indexing Platform, which it markets to life sciences and health care companies through a subsidiary, Semantx Life Sciences.