High Jinks Over Hyperlinks

To make sure my ears weren’t deceiving me, I logged onto the BBC News website for verification.
Sure enough, it seems that British Telecom (BT) is claiming patent rights on the good old hyperlink, that familiar blue highlighted (often underlined) text on website that allows you to click directly from one site to another.
The telecommunications giant is in the process of taking Prodigy, long-time US internet service provider (ISP), to court for royalties it claims it is owed as the inventor of the hyperlink.
“Oh, give us break,” I hear your collective sigh, “how can this be?”
Well, it appears that way back in 1980, long before the world wide web began to spin, BT lodged patent application with the US Patent Office for technology known as Prestel, primitive system of linking computers. The company came across the long forgotten patent, due to expire in 2006, during review of its global patents, and now obviously thinks it has strong enough case to generate some significant royalty income.
BT says every US hyperlink is its intellectual property and therefore incurs licensing fee. Nice money if you can get it. If the case against Prodigy turns out to be successful, every ISP in the US would be liable to pay BT for the use of the technology.
That patent application could be the best money BT ever spent, considering “hyperlinking” is way of life for millions of practising web-surfers around the world.
Personally, I don’t think BT has dog’s show of winning, although the lawyers will be laughing all the way to their banks. Much debate will centre around the wording of the original patent, which referred to “remote terminals”. Could this be construed as today’s PCs?
As one expert on patents points out, patents are anything but precise and are meant to cover things that aren’t yet invented. So the “remote terminal” wording may be sufficient to win the case for BT.
“Exhibit A” from Prodigy is somewhat fuzzy black and white video dating back to 1968, showing Stanford computer researcher Douglas Engelbart engaged in hypertext linking, full 12 years before BT lodged its patent application (Engelbart was the second person to link up to the US Defence department’s ARPANet system, the forerunner of the internet as we now know it).
The BT vs Prodigy case is shaping up to be one of the most contentious and controversial patent disputes in history.
Of course, had BT known just how prevalent these “hyperlinks” to “remote terminals” were to become, less than two decades after lodging that application, it certainly wouldn’t have waited until now to try and enforce the patent.
Apparently the UK patent has expired, so ISPs in the UK can breathe sigh of relief.
All this just goes to show how critical foresight is when backing new technologies. Which ones will eventually become winners, and which are simply flash in the pan?

Glenn Baker is editor of e.Office.

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