When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) unveiled its instant-search feature two months ago, a common reaction to the new feature was that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) surely could whip up a similar feature in a matter of weeks if they wanted to.

As it turns out, not so much.

Though Google Instant may seem like it just dropped out of thin air very recently, Big G filed for a patent on the model way back in 2004 a couple of months before Google filed for its IPO. Now, the U.S. Patent Office has granted that patent, making it difficult for anybody else to clone the idea without running into legal trouble -- or perhaps paying license fees to Google. I don't think Steve Ballmer or Carol Bartz would be exceedingly happy about sending checks to Mountain View, nor is Google under any obligation to sell licenses if it doesn't want to.

Granted, Google Instant is a rather minor differentiating feature in the big search game. Some people don't like it at all, which is why Google makes it easy to turn it off. Making it work on the massive scale Google or Bing requires also takes a serious engineering effort, so having a license for the general idea may not do rivals any good. I mean, Google has been working on it for at least six years -- not including what it may have done before filing for that patent. If implanting instant search were so easy, don't you think the feature would have been available just a tad sooner?

The bigger point is that Google thought really hard about doing this, then launched it as the patent was getting close to approval. It almost seems like the company was baiting others to copy the idea if they could, thus setting them up for lawsuits or instant license contracts. But that would be evil.

I'm not sure I like that aspect of this patent, especially since Google is so happy to spend millions of dollars on acquisitions, only to produce license-free and open-source versions of what the smaller company was working on. I still believe that Google tends to have its users' best interests at heart. The company can't afford not to work that way.

This patent leaves me feeling torn. It's good news for investors, because Google is potentially monetizing and at least protecting its innovations. But it's also disturbing for the very same reasons. On balance, is this good or bad for Google in the long run? Share your opinions in the comments below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.