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.

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