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By m0rzo in Internet
Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 10:35:23 AM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

Way back in 1980 British Telecom, then a part of the Post Office, lodged a patent with the US Patent Office. This patent could prove to be one of the most interesting, yet ambiguous, ever in history.

Imagine for a moment if every click you made when surfing the World Wide Web (sic) was subject to a royalty payment to just one British company. British Telecom is claiming that it is the de facto inventors of the hyper-link. Links like this, this and this are all intellectual property and therefore should be subject to royalty payments

Well, that is what the head honchos at British Telecom would have you believe. The actual patent, however, is somewhat vague. Patent Number 4,873,662 explicitly refers to Remote Terminal and America's oldest ISP, Prodigy who, incidentally, is subject to a BT law-suit, argue that the term Remote Terminal does not apply to modern-day PCs.

BT refutes Prodigy's claim and says, "In the original patent we use the term 'remote terminal means' which nowadays means PCs,"

Yesterday, BT and Prodigy were in court where the Judge explored the definitions of the hyper-link in preparation for what should prove to be an interesting battle later this year.

I first read about this case in a Register article in 2000 and I really couldn't believe it. As Prodigy was the first ISP of its kind in the USA, I suppose it should come as no surprise that they have been targeted by BT.

Clearly, it would be an impossible task to try and make each and every web-site owner hand over money in return for using a hyper-link. BT has an answer. If BT wins this court case they aim to make every Internet Service Provider in the United States pay mandatory royalties. The Patent does not expire until 2006. It seems that the patent they registered in the UK round about the same time, luckily for some, expired six years ago.

Unsurprisingly, this court case is in dire risk of exploding in BT's face. Prodigy has a secret weapon. According to them, on December 9th 1968, Douglas C Engelbart and 17 researchers at the Augmentation Research Centre, Stanford Research Institute CA, presented a 90-minute live public demo in which hypertext was clearly on show.

If BT wins - they could still lose in the long-run. Those fed-up ISPs who are forced to pay out could launch successful counter-lawsuits the basis of which would be product liability.

This court action really says a lot about British Telecom. It's a company riddled with internal wrangling, `tin pot empires' and greed. Maybe they should invest all the money they manage to squeeze out of ISPs to improve their mediocre broadband roll-out. I still haven't sampled the benefits of ADSL. I still want it. Get your arses in gear. Take of this article what you will, realise at least, that should they win, this represents the scary but very real eventual total commercialisation of what we hold dear to us.  

More information can be gleamed by visiting the following links:

Register Article

BBC Article dated 11 February

Apologies for the grotesque, somewhat shameless application of hyper-links. Sue me.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o British Telecom
o Post Office
o US Patent Office
o World Wide Web
o this
o this
o this [2]
o Patent Number 4,873,662
o Prodigy
o BT
o Register article
o them
o Register Article
o BBC Article dated 11 February
o Also by m0rzo

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Click Here (TM) | 28 comments (25 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
I would *really* love BT to win (4.30 / 10) (#1)
by vefoxus on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 07:42:34 AM EST

If they win this case, it would be the surest way to make software patents eventually illegal, at least in Europe where the matter is still debated.

Support BT !

Don't pay any attention to BT (5.00 / 7) (#2)
by Jel on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 07:54:50 AM EST

Don't worry so much =)

BT are assholes. They do a great job of holding back the UK communications scene, considering that they were originally a government-owned (read: citizen-owned) communications network.

Given that BT was a government branch back in 1980 (IIRC =), how can they even hold patents? Shouldn't all of their inventions be owned by the population (if not of the entire world, then at least of the UK)? I doubt many of the UK's citizens would advocate BT charging every website for existing, when they already charge extortionate prices just to let most of the country get online at ~40Kbps.

On another note, one which I'm sure many are aware of -- haven't hyperlinks been around since about 1928, with an idea (who's name I forget) to cross-reference all scientific knowledge? If not then, then surely since Xanadu, in the 60s?

...lend your voices only to sounds of freedom. No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from. Fill your lives with love and bravery, and we shall lead a life uncommon
- Jewel, Life Uncommon
Something I hadn't thought of (none / 0) (#13)
by 8ctavIan on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 02:26:00 PM EST

Given that BT was a government branch back in 1980 (IIRC =), how can they even hold patents? Shouldn't all of their inventions be owned by the population (if not of the entire world, then at least of the UK)?

That's a good point you bring up and something I hadn't thought of. In Europe there seems to be a lot of privatising and some of the people who end up running companies make a lot of money off the value added to the company while it was state owned. This money is almost never given back in any shape or form to the people who were supporting the company with its tax dollars for so many years.

In terms of the hyperlink itself, I'm sure that the fact that Dr. Doug Engelbart basically came up with the hyperlink as we know it in the 1960's at Stanford should convince anybody *not* to grant patent rights to BT.

Link to that: http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html
Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice. -- H.L. Mencken
[ Parent ]

I'm in pain from the bad joke! (5.00 / 6) (#3)
by Talez on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 08:07:40 AM EST

Apologies for the grotesque, somewhat shameless application of hyper-links. Sue me.

I'm sure BT would *love* to sue you for that article :P

Si in Googlis non est, ergo non est

Product liability? (4.66 / 3) (#7)
by J'raxis on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 10:11:30 AM EST

Care to elaborate on what you meant by “counter-lawsuits the basis of which would be product liability”? Do you mean we get to sue BT for every broken link on the Internet!?

The Raxis

[ J’raxis·Com | Liberty in your lifetime ]

Yup. (5.00 / 2) (#11)
by m0rzo on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 12:45:30 PM EST

That's about it. If they can patent them then we can sue if they don't do what they're supposed to to!

My last sig was just plain offensive.
[ Parent ]

Product Liability (none / 0) (#28)
by danb35 on Sun Feb 17, 2002 at 09:33:07 PM EST

If they can patent them then we can sue if they don't do what they're supposed to to!
Ummm... Not exactly. You see, one of the elements of a product liability case is that the defendant actually made the product in question. If BT didn't make the hyperlinks that broke, you can't sue them for it. Simply having a patent doesn't make you liable for products made in violation of that patent.

BTW, you'd also need to show that you were actually harmed in some way, which might be difficult.

[ Parent ]

BT has at least one bad argument. (5.00 / 5) (#8)
by chopper on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 10:40:40 AM EST

"In the original patent we use the term 'remote terminal means' which nowadays means PCs,"

yeah, but terminology in a patent is supposed to be defined according to one of 'ordinary skill in the relevant art at the time of the invention'.

not 'what it means today'.

so, for the patent to enjoy such a narrow definition (that remote terminal==PC), it must be present in the specification and/or clarified in the application file wrapper e.g. the comments made by the applicant during the prosecution of the application.

either way, this is going to be interesting.

give a man a fish,he'll eat for a day

give a man religion and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish

Hey! (4.40 / 5) (#9)
by Dphitz on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 11:19:02 AM EST

I think I'll patent the scroll bar, just the vertical one though.

All your scroll bars are belong to us!

God, please save me . . . from your followers

Al Gore (2.33 / 3) (#18)
by plunkymeadows on Wed Feb 13, 2002 at 12:10:10 AM EST

He has a patent on the internet. You just don't know it...just like he won the election and is secretly running the United States as well.
"Dad, I dont think I'm gonna do it Hamster Style anymore."
[ Parent ]
Question (4.00 / 2) (#10)
by vambo rool on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 12:36:40 PM EST

In the US, a patent has a life of 17 years unless an act of Congress extends it (like Owen Hatch tried to do with Claritin). If this were in the US and the patent was issued in 1980, it should have expired in 1997. What's the life of a patent in UK?

Patent lifetime (4.50 / 4) (#12)
by Vulch on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 01:07:26 PM EST

In the UK the lifetime of a patent is about the same. I believe there is a difference in when the clock starts ticking though, in the UK the life starts when the patent is filed, in the USA it doesn't start until the patent is granted. IANAL, I don't have any patents, etc...

From the wording in the article, it looks like 1980 was the date the UK patent was lodged with the US patent office. If it then took 9 years for the matching US patent to be granted you get the 2006 expiry...


[ Parent ]

And if we read... (none / 0) (#23)
by geekmug on Wed Feb 13, 2002 at 01:47:48 PM EST

the header to the patent, we would see that in fact it did.

United States Patent | 4,873,662
Sargent | October 10, 1989

-- Why reinvent the square wheel?
[ Parent ]
re: Prodigy (4.00 / 3) (#14)
by Canthros on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 03:26:17 PM EST

This is boundless speculation, but I'd bet on their targeting Prodigy being based on the fact that Prodigy is also one of the smaller ISPs at the moment. A victory against Prodigy should be relatively easier to get than one against, say, AOL, and would provide useful precedent in bullying the rest of the industry.

It's now obvious you are either A) Gay or B) Female, or possibly both.
Prodigy is not so small (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by spacefrog on Wed Feb 13, 2002 at 04:02:03 AM EST

based on the fact that Prodigy is also one of the smaller ISPs at the moment

Huh? Prodigy has 3.1 million subscribers. This does not make them a "smaller" ISP by any stretch of the imagination.

Although it leaves them a long way off from AOL, they are in the same category as Earthlink (4.8 million) and MSN (6.9 million).

Granted, SBC (Prodigy's parent) has fewer lawyers than the AOL-TW juggernut, I don't think that's the issue. The reason they are going after prodigy is that they have been running a "hypertext" based system since roughly 1984.

[ Parent ]
D'oh! (none / 0) (#24)
by Canthros on Wed Feb 13, 2002 at 06:10:19 PM EST

Huh? Prodigy has 3.1 million subscribers.
I'm not sure this actually disqualifies my point (i.e. they're an easier target than the larger ISPs you mentioned), but I'm afraid I assumed that they were small primarily because I never hear anything about them. I've got a Prodigy disk from a couple years ago lying around somewhere, and I remember some ads from a couple years before that, but I'm usually astounded every time I find out that they still exist. I wasn't attempting to equate them to a regional or local ISP (although, with numbers like that, it's possible that there are regional ISPS with more subscribers).

In any case, my apologies.

With regards to the age of their business, I'm still less certain that it's the only (or even main) motivation for targeting Prodigy.

It's now obvious you are either A) Gay or B) Female, or possibly both.
[ Parent ]

A Broken Link (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by n0nick on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 04:11:29 PM EST

The link to Patent Number 4,873,662 is broken - Guess it's because you're linking to the direct IP of the server, which probably changed since you originally visited the website.

Please fix it so we too could know the details of this odd patent.

"Outside? Is that the big room with the blue sky? There aren't any computers out there." -- DesiredUsername

Must be your ISP... (5.00 / 1) (#16)
by m0rzo on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 04:34:04 PM EST

It's working fine for me.

My last sig was just plain offensive.
[ Parent ]

Now it works (none / 0) (#21)
by n0nick on Wed Feb 13, 2002 at 07:04:54 AM EST

.. Weird.
"Outside? Is that the big room with the blue sky? There aren't any computers out there." -- DesiredUsername

[ Parent ]
Keyboard only? (5.00 / 3) (#17)
by mold on Tue Feb 12, 2002 at 07:19:07 PM EST

I may have read the incorrectly, but the patent seems to read that only keyboard entry qualifies.

...which may be used to influence the display at the time or in response to a keyboard entry signal.

Couldn't you argue that the majority of links are actually entered with a mouse (in the modern sense, and obviously ignoring Lynx, etc.), or that many do not ever affect the display at all? How would payments really count for driver downloads or links accessed through a mouse, by speech-recognition, or any other means of accessing the link?

It also seems to be very specific about the use of modems over telephone lines, having a central computer, and the usage of display information.

each of said blocks comprising a first portion containing information for display and a second portion containing information not for display but including the complete address for each of plural other blocks of information

I would say that most pages are not built this way at all. What if the page has no links to other pages? What if the page has no display properties, but is instead a control that works on your computer, behind the scenes (ie, the core part of the Windows Update).

This patent doesn't seem to have any real connection to linking. I would think that it would be rather obvious that this patent is not relevant in any modern sense, and I hope that the courts realize this.

Beware of peanuts! There's a 0.00001% peanut fatality rate in the USA alone! You could be next!
Mouse "Key" (none / 0) (#26)
by sgp on Fri Feb 15, 2002 at 06:43:56 PM EST

Of course, the mouse button could be construed to be a "key" which is pressed...
Of course the case doesn't stand a chance, it's just interesting to watch how this will pan out.

There are 10 types of people in the world:
Those who understand binary, and those who don't.

[ Parent ]

My personal computer... (4.00 / 3) (#19)
by Kaki Nix Sain on Wed Feb 13, 2002 at 02:10:53 AM EST

... is not a terminal apparatus for an information handling system of that kind. It is an autonomous computing system that I have choosen to interface with other autonomous computing systems through a network of translating devices using open protocols. Case closed.

Stop patenting ideas! (silly US patent office) (4.66 / 3) (#22)
by cpbell on Wed Feb 13, 2002 at 08:45:08 AM EST

Why is it that time and time again we see the US patent office grant patents on ideas? You can't, as a chip maker, walk in and say we are going to build a computer chip. You have to walk in with a design, an actual implementation of a design. This is how software needs to be managed. You can't patent an idea. That is not intellectual property, there is a good chance that "Joe Blow" already thought of it one night while drinking tea, and I'm sure he did it way before you did.

I think software looks and feels can be patented (exact interfaces), but ideas like Hyperlinks and embedded applications (Java) should not be patented. Those ideas should be free to the world. Companies don't spend much time developing the idea, it's the design and implementation that they are supposed to protect. That is where they made their investment.


Colin Bell

Other things possibly covered by the patent (3.00 / 1) (#25)
by robert0122 on Thu Feb 14, 2002 at 03:20:03 PM EST

"The second part of the block could alternatively influence the format and/or color of the display at the terminal" It sounds to me like any formatting information would also be covered. That would include HTML or even fonts and colors stored with word processor files! Hehehe maybe Microsoft will get sued again, this time over Word!

But... (none / 0) (#27)
by n0mj121 on Sun Feb 17, 2002 at 07:18:29 AM EST

...how could anyone with any idea of what this would mean for the US's internet users decide to let BT impose these charges? Surely the people who get the end decision over what happens wouldn't stand on BT's side... they have done enough to fuck up the UK as it is - their monopoly on DSL combined with their complete failure to deliver the high speed digital goods is what is holding back much of Britain's potential for online interaction.

Click Here (TM) | 28 comments (25 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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