Patently absurd

Let’s start with exhibit A: a short film snippet that shows a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute trying out what would become the first computer mouse. He demonstrates how it could be used to click on highlighted text. He calls this text “”hyperlinks.”” The clip was recorded in 1968.

We’re

lucky the scientist in question, Douglas C. Engelbart, didn’t spend a little less time in the lab and a little more time at the patent office. Then he might be able to sit next to British Telecom (BT) at the prosecution’s table as it sues Prodigy, and by extension the entire Internet Service Provider industry, for breaching what it believes to be its intellectual property rights over hyperlinking on the Web. The company is hoping that it can charge ISPs everywhere to pay licensing fees to connect Web sites.

Please, stop laughing until you have read the entire editorial.

According to its suit, BT filed a patent that would cover hyperlinks in 1976 — even though computers as we know them were not invented yet, let alone the mainstream Internet. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sat on it for 12 years before it finally granted it. It described a “”central computer”” connected to and accessed by “”remote terminals”” — similar but not exactly the same as hyperlinking Web sites. These remote terminals would have a “”complete address,”” which BT says is just semantics for a URL.

It has fallen to U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon to weed through the dense technical jargon involved in this case. Hers is an unenviable lot, and last week she made an initial ruling which states the patent “”does not completely represent the claimed function,”” and is giving the two parties a month to make a motion for a summary judgement or dismissal. If that doesn’t happen, the matter could go to trial by September. There is probably some due process involved here that I’m not familiar with, otherwise her decision not to throw the case out of court this instant is inexplicable.

Research firm Gartner has suggested that BT is suing because it wants to get more value from the billions it spends on research and development every year. No one wants to be Xerox, whose Paolo Alto Research Center (PARC) failed to profit from its early versions of the graphical user interface and mouse. It must be painful for PARC’s researchers to see their innovations turned into Fortune 1,000 giants by other firms. Indeed, BT’s suit looks like the result of sour grapes following its request to Prodigy and America Online to buy a hyperlinking license in June 2000 (I would love to have been in the room when the ISPs received this request).

BT is not the only company taking intellectual property to the extreme. I’m still surprised IBM, the king of the patent-infringement party poopers, didn’t trademark the term “”e-business,”” which several of its Canadian executives have insisted it coined. On Monday, meanwhile, a judge cast doubt on Microsoft’s ownership of the word “”Windows,”” which is the impetus for its suit against a startup called Lindows.

If any good comes of this case, it may be that companies and courts recognize that technology patents are often too broad to be properly applied. Advancements in this industry take so many unexpected turns that patent officials risk painting the industry into an incredibly tight corner.

Although there is a mind-boggling possibility that it could win licensing rights over hyperlinks — and charge ISPs six years’ worth of back payments — BT also risks any strategic relationships it may need to form with service providers in the long term. These relationships can be critical for telecommunications companies that are making major investments in next-generation multimedia services. Earlier this year, for example, BT began paying ISP customers to advertise its broadband offerings in an attempt to boost ADSL in the UK.

Once this matter is resolved, BT may discover that these were dangerous bridges to burn. Or in this case, dangerous links to break.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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