BT Claims Ownership of Hyperlinks

What would the Web be without the omnipresent bits of blue, underlined text called hyperlinks? British Telecommunications Monday said the convenient technology which allows surfers to navigate the Web intuitively was all its idea. And it wants money from every ISP in the U.S. that uses it.

Conventional Web history holds that hyperlinks, and the World Wide Web for that matter, were created by Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist at the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in 1990.

In his The World Wide Web: A very short personal history, Berners-Lee wrote: “One of the things computers have not done for an organization is to be able to store random associations between disparate things, although this is something the brain has always done relatively well. In 1980 I played with programs to store information with random links, and in 1989, while working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory, I proposed that a global hypertext space be created in which any network-accessible information could be referred to by a single “Universal Document Identifier.”

“Given the go-ahead to experiment by my boss, Mike Sendall, I wrote in 1990 a program called “WorlDwidEweb,” a point and click hypertext editor which ran on the “NeXT” machine. This, together with the first Web server, I released to the High Energy Physics community at first, and to the hypertext and NeXT communities in the summer of 1991. Also available was a “line mode” browser by student Nicola Pellow, which could be run on almost any computer. The specifications of UDIs (now URIs), HyperText Markup Language and HyperText Transfer Protocol published on the first server in order to promote wide adoption and discussion.”

But the British telecomm giant said it filed a patent in the U.S. in 1976 — granted in 1989 — for what it called the “Hidden Page.” The company filed patents on Hidden Page technology in other countries as well, but those claims have now expired. The U.S. patent runs out in October, 2006.

The patent was filed following work on Viewdata systems — text-based information systems like Prestel and Minitel — by the General Post Office. In 1981, GPO was split into BT and the Post Office.

The abstract about the patent said, “Information for display at a terminal apparatus of a computer is stored in blocks the first part of which contains the information which is actually displayed at the terminal and the second part of which contains information relating to the display and which may be used to influence the display at the time or in response to a keyboard entry signal.

“For example, the second part of the block could include information for providing the complete address of another block which would be selected by the operation of a selected key of the keyboard. The second part of the block could alternatively influence the format and/or color of the display at the terminal.

“When a block is read from the store of the computer the second part is retained in another store which may be located in the terminal or in the computer itself or perhaps both. The invention is particularly useful in reducing the complexity of the operating protocol of the computer.”

BT has retained technology development and licensing company Scipher plc — formerly the Thorn-EMI research lab — to pursue its patent claim through QED, its Intellectual Property licensing business. Scipher has worked with BT in the past. Most recently it worked with BT to help the company create licensing agreements for its optical fiber amplifiers.

BT said it forgot about the Hidden Page patent until it was rediscovered three years ago during a routine review of the 15,000 patents the telecomm holds. Licensing of the patent only became viable recently with the blossoming of wide-spread commercial use of the Web.


t’s taken some time to put together a very detailed licensing program, to put together the arguments that we will be making and to decide commercially how to do this,” Daniel Brod, associate director of QED, said of the three year wait before making a claim.

The company said it has no plans to require individual users to pay for utilizing hyperlinks but it has sent letters to large U.S. ISPs, like America Online, about licensing agreements. It has not disclosed how much it plans to charge for a license.

“We do think the ISPs infringed the patent,” Brod said. “Initially, we’ve contacted the large ISPs. Eventually, it is possible that the smaller ISPs will be contacted as well.”

Brod brushed aside the notion that BT’s patent claim is an attempt to put a roadblock before competitors in the ISP market.

“There certainly is no intention, as far as our licensing program goes, to do anything of the sort,” he said. “We’re simply trying to license the patent and extract a reasonable royalty. Basically the argument is: There is a patent; we believe it covers hyperlinks; and we believe it’s appropriate that you should take a license for it.”

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