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ActiveBuddy's Patent Win Riles IM Bot Developers

New York-based ActiveBuddy has won a crucial patent covering instant messaging bot-making technology, but hobbyists and amateur developers aren't buying the company's claim that it invented the technology.

ActiveBuddy was granted Patent No. 6,430,602 which covers the method and system for interactively responding to instant messaging requests and the company said it would move swiftly to enforce the patent, a move that is sure to create a brouhaha in the bot developer space.

ActiveBuddy founder Tim Kay, who is listed as an inventor in the patent claim, told internetnews.com the clinching of the patent validates the company's business model of creating interactive agents (bots) that respond to IM queries.

"We invented interactive agents. Anybody using his or her own tools (to make bots) is obviously using our technology without paying us to license the server, for example. We are a startup company and we have to protect out future. That's basically why we secured this patent," Kay said.

"Any company such as ours that is venture-funded has to protect itself. It's standard procedure to file for patents when you invent something. This simply allows us to build a business," Kay added.

He did not say whether ActiveBuddy had specific plans to issue cease and desist orders to Web sites that share code and bot-making techniques but, already, there are rumblings among developers that ActiveBuddy's patent win is ludicrous.

David deVitry, who founded the RunABot site laughed off the patent win and believes it is unenforceable because of the availability of prior art. "They (ActiveBuddy) don't have anything that's really unique. They're just the first to commercialize it and make money from IM bots," he said.

deVitry's RunABot site sells tools for bots that run on instant messaging, e-mails and the Web, but he is unfazed by ActiveBuddy's patent win. "I'm confident that ActiveBuddy's patent is unenforceable. "I can name a handful of IM bots that were running long before ActiveBuddy was even a company," he argued.

WiredBots CEO Chris McClelland was also among the developer crowd wary of ActiveBuddy's patent win. "Patents block innovation and hurt consumers. When big companies use their financial might to patent software, they undermine the very nature of software, its openness," McClelland argued.

At WiredBots, McClelland distributes free code and tips on making and running IM bots and, like deVitry, he argued that bots have been running on instant messaging networks long before ActiveBuddy put in a patent claim in August 2000.

"I know for a fact that protocols that allow unofficial clients to connect to the AIM service have been around long before 2000. In fact, the Net::AIM module [which allows potential bot developers to connect to the TOC protocol through Perl] was around since 1998," McClelland said, disputing ActiveBuddy's claims that it invented the technology.

ActiveBuddy disputed McClelland's claims. "I am fairly confident, there were no interactive agents on IM at that point when the application was filed (August 22, 2000). I'm certainly not aware of any," said Kay, who doubles as ActiveBuddy's chief technology officer.

However, back in August 1999, programmer Aryeh Goldsmith wrote the Net::AIM module, which is timestamped at CPAN.

"I've had bots running a little before that date (1999) and since that time. I'm sure there are plenty of others who have built bots and have been running them as well," Goldsmith said in an e-mail exchange.

"It's important to note that the Net::AIM module was also distributed with a bot. It may have been a very simplistic one -- having only the function of waiting for messages and replying with a random quote -- but it was a bot none-the-less. Intelligent bots simply do a little more "processing" between the receiving and replying phase," Goldsmith added.

"I'm not familiar with that," Kay said in response to claims that interactive bots were in existence even before ActiveBuddy launched, with venture funding from Reuters and Wit Soundview.

"Clearly, we use our patented technology in our products. If you want to do things that our products allow you to do, your best choice is to use our products," Kay said, referring to the recent launch of the Lite BuddyScript Server, which can be used by hobbyists to develop and run IM bots.

"The buddyscript suite of tools is the best that's available. We're confident they are the best choice (for users) who are building interactive agents. The subject of enforcing the patent shouldn't even come up. Anyone wanting to build a very good interactive agent will find that our tools are the very best," Kay added.

Kay said ActiveBuddy was not worried about competing firms offering bot-making tools. "Our primary level of comfort comes from the fact that we have the best choice for developers and others. When given the choice, we're confident people will choose ours," he said.

Jupiter analyst Michael Gartenberg isn't surprised by the brouhaha surrounding the patent win. "This is just the latest example of a company that has picked up a key patent on critical technology and is going to use it to exploit the market. It's not surprising that the smaller developers are crying foul," he said.

Gartenberg, who covers emerging platforms from the research firm, described the news as a "big win for the ActiveBuddy folks," especially if it holds up to scrutiny.

"This underscores the notion of how powerful the ownership of key patents are in the technology landscape. We saw it in the Amazon.com "one-click" case and the recent controversy over the JPEG patent. This is just the latest example of it," Gartenberg added.