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Set links free,BT!
February 13, 2002
Time to send your protest email to British Telecom, the behemoth that wants to get paid every time you click a link on a Web page.
If British Telecom gets their way, you may have to pay them a penny every time you click a link, to go to another page.
In legal hearings that started on Monday, BT argues that if an Internet Service Provider lets an American click a link and go to another page, the ISP is violating a patent that BT filed back in the U.S. on August 15, 1980—which BT forgot about until last year.
Figure the payoff. Worldwide, there are more than 3 billion Web pages that say more than “Under Construction”, and each page has at least half a dozen links, so figure that if a busy American were to click each link just once, BT would stand to make, well, a heck of a lot of money in licensing fees.
Turns out that BT was once part of the British General Post Office, in the 70s, developing an interactive system called Prestel. And, yes, they had crude links. You saw a menu item with a number next to it, typed the number in, then pressed Enter. In a minute or two, you saw the next page of text on your ancient video display.
In the late 70s and early 80s, at least a dozen companies were developing these “videotext” systems , hoping they would act as electronic phone books, with movie listings, and classified ads. All this information would be available through gizmos attached to your phone lines.
The only videotext system that survived was the French one, Minitel, backed by the government—which became so widespread that France has been slower than most advanced countries to adopt the Web, because a lot of folks feel they don’t need it. (95% of French businesses already have Minitel).
But mainframe applications were already offering this kind of “link” in accounting and inventory packages in the 70s, so even then the idea of entering a number then pressing Enter to go to another screen was not original. And, as far as I can tell, no one thought of patenting the technique.
In fact, Doug Engelbart and his team at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) had already demo’d real hypertext links on December 9, 1968, in front of about 1000 computer geeks at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco—recording the event on video. The team had developed a whole technology for hypertext links—leaping from a graphic display onscreen (revolutionary!) to chunks of text, instead of plodding forward through a single linear text.
Engelbart also demo’d a gizmo called a mouse, for clicking a link to go to another page. “I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” he said. “It started that way, and we never changed it.”
And inspiring Engelbart’s team was Ted Nelson, who publicized the term hypertext in his book Literary Machines,way, way back, in 1965. Tim Berners-Lee, father of the Web, attributes his original conception of links to Nelson.
In legal terms, Engelbart and Nelson display "prior art," proving they invented hyperlinks. Therefore BT's claim, specious as it is, is invalid.
About a year ago, BT dusted off some 15,000 patents, and decided to sue to enforce one for an “Information-handling system and terminal apparatus.” That patent focused on hardware, not software. The writers spend most of their time defining a central processing unit, remote terminals, modems, key pads, and video displays.
The patent barely mentions what we think of as links. The closest they come to what we think of as linking is in an attack on a competitor called VIEWDATA, which required that you type a page number into a form, then press Enter, to go to another page. But BT’s big innovation was to use a single digit for each choice, so you wouldn’t have to type so much. They claim their invention simplifies “keying each item.” Wow, what a breakthrough. In no way is this patent about clicking a link to go to another page. Here are two big reasons their patent has nothing to do with hyperlinks:
Links let you click and go. But the patent talks of operating keys, to navigate:
By index, then, BT’s lawyers mean a menu. They stress the importance of their breakthrough concept: requiring only a single digit to trigger the jump to the next page. Wow! Those Post Office programmers were hot!
So BT filed for a patent in the UK in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1980, then forgot about the whole thing. In the UK, the patent lapsed. But because the U.S. patent was granted in 1989, it is good until 2006. So when BT woke up to this treasure trove of old patents, they decided to sue someone in the U.S.
Instead of going after individual users, though, BT sent bullying letters to America Online (34 million customers) and Prodigy (3.6 million), both of whom refused to budge. Picking on the weakling, BT then sued Prodigy, which was the first major Internet portal (set up in 1984).
A year ago, BT brought their suit in the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York in White Plains, NY (where Prodigy used to be located, before moving to Texas). Given the swiftness of federal justice, BT finally got a preliminary hearing on Monday, February 11, 2002. BT’s idea, I gather, is to win this case, and then charge every ISP in America for every link you click.
The British Broadcasting Corporation reacted with shock at what British Telecom was up to. The BBC quotes lawyer Ben Goodger, of Willoughby and Partners:,
The BBC's Mark Ward commented, “The case could also be a public relations disaster for a company not always seen as the best friend of the Internet,” because it has been so slow to move to unmetered access, and broadband. Ward deadpans the witticisms of Sir Christopher Bland (what a perfect name for the guy), who says, “If the court decides in our favour, then that will be nice. If it doesn’t, that won’t be so nice.”
Luckily, the judge asked the BT attorneys some tough questions. According to Jim Fitzgerald of AP, US District Judge Colleen McMahon said that the patent’s language is archaic. “It’s like reading Old English.” She balked at BT’s attempt to claim that keypad meant mouse, and that typing in a number could be the equivalent of clicking hot text. So here's one judge we need to support!
Act like the opposition in the British Parliament, and cry “Shame!” You can email BT at http://www.bt.com/index.jsp.
Here’s what BT said to me when I wrote them:
Well, that’s kind, but I am still waiting for a human to respond. How about you?
(March 15 2002): The judge has quibbled with BT's claims, pointing out that a single computer terminal is hardly analogous to a network, much less the Internet. But she has not thrown out the case.
(June 29, 2002). Keith Regan of E-Commerce Times called the lawsuit an example of British humor--a big joke..
(August 23, 2002). Tim Richardson, of The Register, reports, "BT has lost its legal challenge to charge US ISPs a fee for using hyperlinks."
The judge issued a summary judgment, turning down BT. "I find that, as a matter of law, no jury could find that Prodigy infringes the patent, whether directly or contributory, either as part of the Internet or on its Web server viewed separate and apart from the Internet. Prodigy's motion for summary judgment is therefore granted. The clerk is directed to close the file." Amen!
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