BT patent case raises e-commerce planning issues

The ongoing patent case brought by BT against a US ISP over its use of hyperlinks on its Web pages should set the alarm bells...

The ongoing patent case brought by BT against a US ISP over its use of hyperlinks on its Web pages should set the alarm bells ringing for those companies wanting to be sure of their long-term e-commerce planning

The federal judge overseeing the BT case against Prodigy has already indicated that she is unsure that BT actually has a case, however, it will be up to jurors to have the final say on the matter as BT has chosen to press ahead with its claim.

Struan Robertson, a solicitor at corporate practice Masons, said: "With the BT case the gut reaction is that it doesn't make any sense, but BT has to look after its shareholders, particularly with its current debts."

Robertson added: "It really comes down to the question of "prior art", did BT's hyperlink solution come before anything else similar? There is an argument however that hyperlinks were invented by colleges in the US in the 1960s, and in addition, the other side will be arguing that the hyperlinks of today resemble nothing like those registered by BT in 1976."

BT is not the first big company to attempt to press home its claims with obscure patents, and the trend may work against companies and industry suppliers wanting to expand the use of e-commerce.

In 1999, Unisys began an aggressive legal campaign against companies and their software suppliers who made use of its patented GIF file compression technology. Compuserve was one of the first companies to feel the pressure under Unisys' patent claims on GIF, which until then had been simply embedded in Web files and other Internet-related technologies without much thought by users.

Other companies forced to settle included Corel and Microsoft, and the number of licences now purchased from Unisys to work with GIF now runs into the thousands. However, the picture on GIF is still far from clear for those companies wanting to use and develop software licensed to carry GIF technology, as further sub-licences have to be applied for.

While these sub-licences can often be free, with Unisys ultimately the patent holder, there are no guarantees for the applicants, which is a bad situation all-round. Organisations not sure of their legal situation when using technologies can often turn into either organisations who end up breaking the law, or organisations who take longer to enhance services for the benefit of their customers because of the uncertainty.

Following the GIF case, one of the other major claims came from AltaVista, which claimed that it had provided the main technology to build Internet search engines. Although this claim was dismissed by many as unfair, AltaVista said it intended to take action to "protect" its technology listed in several patents it held.

AltaVista said it would bring a case last year, presumably against another big portal using a search engine, but so far it hasn't done so. Its move may still be on the horizon however, as the rewards if it won would obviously be significant.

Next up in the claims stakes for fundamental pieces of the public Internet is Amazon.com, which claims it owns the "double-click" way of buying things on the Internet. Again, the first case is still awaited.

And after all the publicity generated from the BT case, worried onlookers now have a situation where Kodak is suing Sun Microsystems after claiming it owns intellectual property which forms part of the increasingly important Java platform.

Java makes it easier for companies and software developers to deliver new Web services, including those designed to be used with mobile devices which can work well with Java's relatively small footprint, so this case is also potentially a worry for developers and businesses alike.

Kodak and Sun had been discussing the issues around Java privately for months before Kodak issued its writ, and it may have even been encouraged by BT's actions to force the issue.

As it is the BT case that is in court, it will certainly be the one that everyone will now be seriously following with interest.

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