British Telecom Claims Patent On Hyperlinks

By: Jim Fitzgerald, Associated Press Writer

(AP) British Telecommunications PLC claimed in federal court Monday that it owns the patent on hyperlinks — the single-click conveniences that underlie the Web — and should get paid for their daily use by millions of people.

But a federal judge with a laptop on her desk warned that it may be difficult to prove that a patent filed in 1976, more than a decade before the World Wide Web’s invention, somehow applies today.

“The language is archaic,” said Judge Colleen McMahon. “It’s like reading Old English.”

She said comparing a 1976 computer with a 2002 computer is like comparing a mastodon and a jet. And she suggested that the invention at issue “was already outmoded by the time it was patented” in 1989.

But Albert Breneisen, an attorney for British Telecom, insisted that “the basic structure of linking is covered by the patent.” Before BT’s technology, he said, a computer user had to know and enter the complete address of another page.

At a preliminary hearing in White Plains, lawyers for BT and for Prodigy Communications Corp. — the Internet service provider that is the first target of the lawsuit — argued over the meanings of words as simple as “central,” as in “central computer,” and phrases as complex as “means coupled to said further memory means.”

“‘Central’ is a simple English word,” the judge said, to little avail, as the lawyers used slide shows and charts.

BT tried to persuade the judge to interpret the language broadly for the jury — to include a computer mouse, for example, as the “keypad” mentioned in the patent. “It has keys,” BT lawyer Robert Perry said.

When they argued over the word “terminal,” Prodigy lawyer Willem Schuuman tried to show that the “dumb” terminals of old cannot be equated to modern desktops that do their own computing.

If it is successful against Prodigy, which is now based in Texas but formerly was in White Plains, BT could challenge other Internet service providers and demand licensing fees that might add to members’ costs.

The lawsuit has been viewed with chagrin by many in the information technology field.

Some computer historians trace the idea of hypertext back to Vannevar Bush, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, in the 1930s. They also note that Doug Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse, worked on an early hypertext system in the late 1960s.

McMahon said she feared that jurors, who may have a hard enough time understanding their own computers, will not be able to grasp what computer technology was like in the 1970s, when mainframes the size of a Buick had less power than some handheld devices today.

But Breneisen said outside court, “I think a jury that uses clicks on their computers every day will be able to see how that relates to this patent. It’s an old patent but it’s got an awful lot of similarities to certain things that are being used on the Internet.”

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