The Kiwi firm that has devised an innovative product in the hot area of enterprise search and semantic analysis will regret the passing of the ability to patent software locally. But at least “if the Patents Act [amendment] affects us, it will affect everyone equally,” says Sean Wilson, CEO of SYL Enterprise Search.
The company already has a New Zealand patent on its techniques for analysing the meaning of structured and unstructured text and applying this to search and is currently applying for a US patent. The principals think they have an innovative enough approach to appeal to an international market.
The Patents Amendment Bill, waiting for its second reading after the election, includes a superficially simple clause “a computer program is not a patentable invention”. This is already being hedged about with guidelines from the Intellectual Property Office (IPONZ) suggesting that software will still be patentable if it produces a physical effect on machinery.
SYL’s search engine is provided in the form of an appliance but this fact alone is unlikely to make future enhancements patentable if the Bill is passed. However, existing NZ patents are in any event secure for 20 years after their granting.
Wilson says he does not agree with patenting an abstract idea, but once it has been enshrined as a practical invention, it deserves protection from imitation. Not to do so risks investment being wasted “and we’ve made substantial investment”, and lack of protection may discourage other parties from further investing in the product or the company, he says.
The SYL search engine, SYL Semantics is based on research into semantic analysis of natural language by Peter de Vocht, now the company’s chief scientist. “Over the last three years we’ve developed a semantic analysis platform”, says chief technical officer Adrian John. The enterprise search engine is only the first tool to be built on the platform.
Enterprise search is clearly seen as a potentially popular and lucrative application, as testified by HP’s takeover of search company Autonomy, finalised earlier this month.
Autonomy has retained Wellington company Pasis as the NZ distributor for its search product.
Enterprise search needs a specialised tool, John says; it cannot be handled by adoption of a web-search tool. The web is a series of connected pages and search tools derive what context they can from the sites that are linked to or from the target site. A document in an enterprise is typically linked to associated documents only by their being together in the same folder.
Ranking of search results on the web by supposed “relevance” often simply reflects the popularity of a page, he says. In an enterprise context, popularity is irrelevant; “you want the latest or the most authoritative”. People searching records within an organisation are usually looking for a document they know is there, which again demands a different mechanism from those usually employed with web search.
SYL’s platform is based on a dictionary of 580,000 English words, with records of associations among them, such as what words are synonyms and how the concepts they indicate are related; for example that Wellington is in New Zealand. Specialist dictionaries can be added to deal with particular business areas with their own vocabularies.
Surveys indicate as much as 25 percent of an executive’s time can be consumed by searching for information, so increased efficiency in the task can save a lot of time and money; but a conventional document or records management system can often simply add to the workload by requiring the document’s creator to enter metadata. SYL’s engine can generate a lot of metadata automatically from the known associations of words in the document, John says.
The layer above the semantic analysis platform includes such essential features as security – to remove confidential documents from the search – and a Google-like visual interface, familiar to most users; but with a number of optional features that can further narrow the search.
The search product has already gained three government agencies and some private corporations as customers, but none can be disclosed on the record yet, John says.