BT says it invented the hyperlink technology used on the Internet and that it has a US patent to prove it. As a result, it is asking US ISPs to pay for the privilege of using the technology.
"BT has about 15,000 patents worldwide and in a routine check, we discovered we have the patent for the hyperlink," BT spokesman Simon Gordon told Digit.
Specifically, BT says that it has what it calls the Hidden Page patent, which was filed in the US in 1976 and granted in 1989, giving the company the intellectual property rights to the hyperlink technology, Gordon said. Hyperlinks connect text, images, and other data on the Internet in such a way as to allow a user to click on a highlighted object on a Web page in order to bring up an associated item contained elsewhere on the Web.
Similar patents were filed in other countries, but have since expired. The U.S. patent does not expire until October 2006, Gordon said.
"Early this year we wrote to 17 top U.S. ISPs asking to be reimbursed for the use of the technology. We've heard back from the majority of those companies, all saying that they need to review the matter and get back to us," Gordon said.
BT has hired UK-based technology development and licensing company Scipher to broker licensing agreements with the US ISPs. BT said that it would not pursue patent claims with individual users, as it would "not be practical."
Gordon declined say how much BT expects to charge for licensing fees or how much the company expects to make from its claims on the patent, but agreed it would be a sizable sum. "We realized the value of this one patent three years ago and have been reviewing with our legal experts which was the best way forward," Gordon said.
There were around two billion pages on the Web as of January this year, according to trade association the Internet Society Organization (ISOC). Depending on whether a page is a privately run or commercial, typically pages have between one and three hyperlinks, or between 50 to 100 hyperlinks according to ISOC.
According to BT, the technology for its hyperlink patent originated from general research done on text-based information systems, specifically a system called Prestel, that was done by an employee of the General Post Office (GPO) in the 1970s. The GPO was split into BT and the Post Office in 1981 and the employee has since retired, according to BT.
Tim Berners-Lee, is generally credited as leading an effort, with Robert Cailliau, to write the underlying protocols – including HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) – for what later came to be known as the World Wide Web, at the CERN nuclear research centre in Switzerland in the late 1980s. Berners-Lee's work was based on, among other things, earlier work carried out by Ted Nelson, who is generally acknowledged to have coined the term hypertext in his 1965 book, Literary Machines.
Berners-Lee also founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1994 and the organization – of which BT is currently a member – has taken a cautious approach to the news that BT holds the US patent to the hyperlink.
"We have not read the patent and do not know what it claims," said W3C spokesman Ian Jacobs. "Obviously, we've been getting a lot of telephone calls about this, so what we are doing is directing people to our homepage where we have a little history of the World Wide Web and hyperlink posted," he said.
Jacobs said that he had not yet spoken to Berners-Lee and did not know what his personal feelings on the patent were. "People (at W3C) out of sheer interest will look at the patent I am sure, but we'll decide in the future if it is worth making any sort of formal comment on," Jacobs said.
Lawyers in the UK versed in intellectual property rights have questioned the wisdom in BT's patent claim. "It is not going to make them very popular and if BT wants to expand into the United States, I wonder how milking this patent is going to effect that," said Ben Goodger, a technology and intellectual property expert for the UK law firm Willoughby & Partners.
"It could very well be that legally it all stacks up, I'm sure BT has thoroughly checked into the legalities of the patent. If it's true and the patent holds up in court, then they really have got the whole of the US over a barrel," Goodger said.
However it seems unlikely, if a company such as AOL refused to pay hyperlink licensing fees, that BT would seek to enforce its patent through the US courts and request that the offending sites be shut down. "Imagine if they shut down the AOL portal?" Goodger speculated.
"It may be that BT will be clever enough to just ask enough in licensing fees and leverage their patent just enough to get companies to pay in an attempt to make the problem go away. It's a bit like cyber squatters in that case," Goodger said.