By Watson, I am an inventor!

(click image for full patent abstract)

After a long day at work, I came home to find a package that my father had mailed me.  He still lives in the apartment where I lived when I started my halycon Internet career back at About.com in 1997 (year 2000 full time).  On occasion, I still get mail from that era, so I asked him to send it to my current apartment.

In it, were some papers, a check and a piece of mail from the “Official Patent Certificate” company.  “The ‘Official Patent Certificate’ company, I thought?”  Sure enough it was an offer to frame a certificate of my recently granted patent.

“Recently granted patent?”

Let me explain.  (Pardon some Internet geekiness).

Back when I was working at About.com, I was on the team that was working on an early advertising product called “Sprinks” (Sponsored Links).  Sprinks were an early forerunner to the now ubitiquous Google AdWords and AdSense, and we actually had a pretty decent business in selling pay-per-click advertising to advertisers.  But our big difference was that instead of search keywords (which at the time was dominated by a company called GoTo, which became Overture, which at some point got molded into Yahoo! Search Marketing, and now will probably be completely relevant with the search over to Bing by Yahoo later this year), we aimed to sell advertisers targeted advertisements on a content level.   So instead of buying an ad for a search on “dogs”, we could say, hey, buy an ad on a site that was about dogs.  We’ll display our ad in the midst of their content and it would perform better because it was more relevant (sound familiar? it’s the general concept Google uses for AdSense today).

So, when I was doing the front-end user experience as part of the team working on the product (that we had dubbed ContentSprinks) I designed an interface to help people to buy these particular content placements.  Instead of doing what Google does now, which is scan the content of a page to return a “relevant” set of results, we actually sold particular topics, and the top bidder on each topic would display first on the topics.

During the development process, the then VP of Development (now SVP of Product Development) at About, Kevin Donovan, gave me a single dollar bill, to essentially buy my rights (and the rights of everyone else listed) for the patent application they were about to file. (It essentially didn’t matter, any patents created under the employ of the company were owned by the company as part of my employment agreement, which is a pretty standard practice).  I didn’t know what it was for at first, but I kept that dollar for a long time as a memory of kind of a “cool moment”.

Fast forward a little bit, and in late 2003, Sprinks was sold to Google for something like $10 million and the sale included the right to replace all Sprinks advertising on About.com, and, all of the intellectual property within Sprinks (including the patent I was a part of). It was a hard to scale business, since there were a finite number of topics (or nodes as are also called), and probably made a lot of business sense for About to sell.  But, I couldn’t help but feeling, that even in the early days of Google, this was a “buy them out” kind of move because we had something Google couldn’t proceed to the marketplace with safely (namely what became AdSense) without having the intellectual property as well.  With that, Sprinks became a blip in Internet history.

Over time, I checked in with that patent application to see if it ever went anywhere.  And, I saw it change ownership from About,Inc, to Google, Inc, and then watched as Google filed the same patent around the world.  Once in a while I’d get a letter saying my patent had been accepted in the EU, in China, in various other places.

But it took this piece of “spam” from the “Official Patent Certificate” company to give me a final update – the patent application had finally been accepted and granted a patent, nearly 5 years after being filed, and nearly 8 years after I “sold” it for a dollar.

So, now I am an inventor.   How cool is that?

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