Google Earth may catch a break in patent quake

Google may get a break from a federal judge in a lawsuit claiming the company’s 3D Earth-mapping program violates patent rights.

In a preliminary order released last week, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock in Massachusetts appeared to side with Google’s interpretations of the patent in question, a stance that could bode well for the search giant as the case moves on.

The legal spat began in May 2004 when a Virginia-based company called Skyline Software Systems filed a patent-infringement suit against Keyhole, a Mountain View, Calif.-based digital mapping company. Founded in 1997, Skyline makes a number of mapping products, including one called TerraExplorer, which, according to its Web site, “allows users to freely fly through 3D terrain and urban environments.”

Google became part of the suit after it acquired Keyhole in October 2004. Keyhole made interactive, 3D mapping software based on terabytes of information and images taken from satellites and airplanes. That technology formed the basis for Google Earth, released last June.

Skyline says Keyhole’s technology infringes on Patent No. 6,496,189, which it received in late 2002. The patent describes “a method of providing data blocks describing three-dimensional terrain to a renderer.”

In January, Skyline requested a preliminary injunction that would shut down and prohibit sales of Google Earth pending resolution of the dispute.

In patent cases, the judge mediating the dispute first hears each side’s interpretations of certain terms used in the language of the patent claim and then reconciles those often-competing definitions. When Judge Woodlock offered the court’s construction of about a dozen terms under dispute, he adopted three of Google’s suggestions verbatim and appeared to be leaning toward its interpretations on two others.

In only two instances–for the definitions of the terms “communication link” and “processor”–did he take Skyline’s definitions verbatim, and in those cases, Google had already acknowledged it had no problems with Skyline’s suggested definitions.

But the dispute isn’t over yet. Next comes the resolution of the real question: whether the Google-Keyhole software infringes on Skyline’s patent. According to the court docket, the judge expects to hold a trial in mid-November or mid-December of this year.